Gradual Retirement

An important way to facilitate longer working lives is to adopt policies and practices that allow workers (and employers) greater flexibility with respect to hours worked and give people more control over job responsibilities and demands as they age. There is substantial anecdotal evidence that many older workers would prefer to work half-time, for example. As noted earlier in this chapter, gradual retirement in the United States is becoming more common. Older workers are more likely than younger workers to work part-time, and the proportion of older workers employed part-time increases with age. Sixty percent of both men and women who had left full-time employment after age 50 by 2008 had moved to a “bridge” job, with more than half of such jobs being part-time (Quinn, Cahill, and Giandrea, 2011). Many of the bridge jobs pay less than the earlier full-time jobs.

Related to this discussion is the need to consider and promote training, retraining, and continuing education for older workers. Some studies of demand and prevalence in these areas are under way, but the empirical basis for understanding how common and effective such measures have been is still lacking. One of the committee’s research recommendations in Chapter 10 encourages data collection and analysis of the facilitation of work at older ages.


The changing demographic environment over the past five decades is on the one hand an achievement and on the other a problem. Chapter 3 explained that mortality rates have declined and life expectancy has increased substantially in industrialized countries. This is the achievement. The problem is that falling birth rates and fewer young people, combined with increased longevity, mean that the ratio of old to young is rising. An increasing number of older people means that health care costs will rise not only because of sheer numbers but also because technology will likely lead to improved and probably more expensive treatment. And while the cost of public pensions rises, there is the prospect of fewer persons in the labor force to pay for the rising pension and health care costs.

How might the increasing imbalance between the rising proportion of older people and the declining proportion of young people be accommodated? Part of the solution would be to leverage the gains in longevity by increasing the employment rate of older people. This would increase the number of people in the workforce and lower the number of retirees that workers help support.

But as noted earlier, until the mid-1990s the trend was just the opposite. The employment rate for older persons in the United States was

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