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It’s always been assumed that workers look forward to the day when they can clock off permanently to embrace the leisurely joys of retirement. But these days, many older workers are leaving the workforce only to return a few years later. The percentage of retirement-age Americans in the labour force doubled from 10% in 1985 to 20% this year. Research from the Rand corporation suggests that nearly 40% of them had previously retired. In the UK, a similar trend has emerged.

Reasons for “unretirement” can be both positive and negative. People are living longer, meaning more older workers are healthy enough to take on a job. And some retirees struggle with boredom and isolation without the structure, community and sense of purpose work can bring. But for others the decision is purely financial. Inadequate pensions and rising health care costs mean poverty among the elderly is a problem in many countries. It’s particularly acute in South Korea, where a weak pension system keeps about a third of seniors working into their early 70s.

Unretirement will have policy implications. Can economies provide good opportunities for older people who prefer to work part time? How do they reskill if training opportunities dwindle with age? Governments must grapple with these issues, as workforces age inexorably.

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Image credit: Piero Zagami and Michela Nicchiotti.

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