The national fear that Social Security and Medicare will go broke under the huge demands of aging baby boomers could be remedied by a major "tectonic" cultural shift.
An unprecedented upturn in the number of older Americans who delay retirement is likely to continue and even accelerate over the next two decades, a trend that should ease the pinch, according to a Rand Corp. study released Wednesday.
Funded by the National Institute on Aging, the research also suggested that lawmakers should consider dismantling barriers that discourage or penalize older workers from remaining on the job, and throw in some incentives to encourage employers to hire seniors.
"We should consider removing the disincentives to delaying retirement and let people make the decision about whether they want to remain in the work force or not," said economist and study author Julie Zissimopoulos.
The shift away from a life of leisure is now a reality.
After more than a century of decline, the number of older American men and women in the work force began to rise modestly during the 1990s. While about 17 percent of Americans aged 65 to 75 were employed in 1990, the number is expected to rise to 25 percent in 2010, the study said.
It gave some evidence that the phrase "70 is the new 50" is no marketing illusion. A jump in employment among those aged 75 and older was also seen.
While some Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicate that the trend will flatten in the next decade, Rand researchers say the forces that cause people to delay retirement or re-enter the work force are strong enough to keep them there until at least 2030.
"Changes in pensions, longer life expectancy, less disability at older ages and more women in the work force are all trends that are gaining momentum and are likely to cause more Americans to delay retirement," Ms. Zissimopoulos said. "Even without new policy changes to encourage the behavior, there are good reasons to conclude that the trend will be propelled forward."
The work experience has gotten better. There are more fulfilling or skilled jobs, along with higher salaries and less physical demands. Among dual-earning couples, men often stay on the job to "accommodate their wives' work lives," the study said.
Based on an analysis of long-term data from federal and private sources, the research was published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.
"More older Americans are extending their work lives, both because they want more income and because their improved health allows a longer work life," said co-author Nicole Maestas, another Rand economist. "Further encouraging longer work lives may prove beneficial to both individuals and the nation as a whole."
It's not a bad idea for all those aging baby boomers, either.
Retirees who continue to work even on a temporary or part-time basis experience fewer major diseases and are able to function better day-to-day than people who stop working altogether, according to a study of more than 12,000 workers between 51 and 61, conducted over a six-year period by the University of Maryland.
The findings were reported late last year in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association.
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