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Work ‘til you drop?

How practical is it for many older Americans to work longer?

We all know the expression "Shop 'til you drop"? It was a way of capturing America’s love affair with buying new stuff. There isn’t much of that mentality left among the 99 percent with the harsh economy of the past 5 years -- not even during the holidays.

The catchphrase of the hour now seems to be "Work 'til you drop." You know the refrain: Work is a social place. It provides a paycheck. An older worker can delay drawing down savings and filing for Social Security. 

For example, in 2006 (before the recession started), 11.2 percent of workers 50 and older expected to retire at age 70, according to an Employee Benefits Research Institute survey. By 2010 (after the recession had officially ended), the comparable figure had increased to 14.8 percent. Sudipto Banerjee, author of Retirement Age Expectations of Older Americans Between 2006 and 2010, notes that "the most striking finding is that nearly 20 percent of the sample expects never to stop working and more than 15 percent of the sample don’t know when they are going to retire.”

There are many good reasons for embracing a longer work life, especially if it involves fewer hours and doing something you love. Yet working longer -- even part-time -- isn’t for everyone. Bodies and minds give out. Life expectancy may be up on average, but not for everyone -- far from it. There’s more to life than work. A bad job is a mind-numbingly depressing experience whether you're 26 or 66. 

Most important, the jobs have to be there for older people. They should be also engaging jobs. The experience of the last few years and longer shows the fragility of the U.S. job market. Employers aren’t exactly welcoming to older workers, either.  

My fear is that the “work longer” catchphrase takes a good idea and turns it into a bad one: You’re on your own. Social Security will be less generous. So will pensions. Medicare will require more out-of-pocket spending. And whether you get a job or not is up to you. If that's the case, the elder years will end up financially pinched for many people.   

The “work longer” notion is actually a revolutionary idea. It's about redefining work and jobs throughout a lifetime and not simply about reimagining retirement and old age. It will require vast social and economic changes to work (pun intended). Age discrimination is very real and it has to end. The jobs have to be there for anyone willing and able to work. "It's a civil rights battle," says Steve Poizner, a Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur and founding partner of Encore Career Institute. He's right.

About the author

Chris Farrell is the economics editor of Marketplace Money.

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