Increased life span and vigorous health are factors driving the trend for older Americans to continue an active life, according to Robert Fogel, Charles R. Walgreen Distinguished Service Professor of American Institutions. Fogel, the 1993 Nobel laureate in economic sciences, is researching labor force participation of middle-aged and older adults.

Despite continuing activity among older adults, Fogel ventured that few retirees will actually seek paid positions. “Most older workers aren’t going to want to work,” Fogel said. “We’ve made retirement too much fun, and their accumulated assets will be enough to sustain them at relatively high levels of income. A small fraction of people whose jobs are particularly interesting will continue to work, but for most people, leisure activities, including volunteer work that utilizes their skills and talents, will be very satisfying.”

Fogel noted there already exists “a flood” of retired volunteers. “An enormous amount of volunteer work goes on at local and state levels,” Fogel said. “Many agencies, both governmental and private, couldn’t afford to operate on their budgets if they didn’t have a lot of volunteers to work with.”

Based on past trends, Fogel also predicts that the age of retirement will continue to decline in America. In 1890 nearly all Americans died on the job. In that generation, the median age of retirement was 85, he said. Among those who survived to age 65, some 90 percent were still in the work force. By World War II, only 50 percent of those age 65 or older remained employed.Today, only about 15 percent of people over age 65 remain in the work force. Even so, that 15 percent translates to 3.9 million people. As the flood of boomers reaches 65, the number of older workers will increase, even though the percentage of those who opt to work may remain relatively small.

For more on Fogel’s research, watch for The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, to be published by the University of Chicago Press in May. –S.D.
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