AEI’s June American Perspectives Survey found that 20 percent of retired Americans were not fully retired. Instead, they are opting to extend their careers through gig economy jobs.
Continuing to work after official retirement is not new, of course. Retired workers have long engaged in bridge jobs, such as part-time consulting, before departing completely from the workforce. Gig work, however, is different. Platforms like FlexJobs and Thumbtack are actively marketing themselves to older retirees, offering flexible work as tutors, rental hosts, pet-sitters, and rideshare drivers – a reflection of how internet-based gig work is helping to fill labor market shortages in the American economy.
Why are retirees passing up traditional retirement for reemployment as gig workers? For at least two decades, the retirement age has been trending up along with increases in part-time retirement work. This is partially because of higher Social Security retirement ages, increased life expectancy, and a growing share of less physically demanding jobs seniors can fill. Another factor is the pervasive retirement-readiness fears, justified or not, across every demographic group.
As with many other aspects of working life, the COVID-19 pandemic has had mixed effects on older workers. The initial drop in stock share prices, and the resulting hit to retirement accounts, might have been expected to discourage retirement as it did in the 2008-09 financial crisis. AEI’s June APS poll found that among those 50 years and older, nearly 20 percent tapped their retirement savings to cover expenses. Health, it turned out, was more important than money, as retirements surged apparently in response to fears about a disease that disproportionately affected older Americans. Between August 2020 and January 2021, 1.1 million workers aged 55 and older exited the workforce, leaving a gaping hole in the economy that has not yet closed.
Other data in the AEI survey suggest the non-financial aspects of work may continue to draw the recently retired back to jobs. Ninety-six percent of over-65 workers reported that an enjoyable job is essential or important to living a fulfilling life. Another 54 percent of this group feel that their job is part of their identity. As poet Richard Armour noted, “retired is being twice tired . . . first tired of working, then tired of not.” So the gig economy may prove irresistible, as it permits “retirees” to earn part-time while enjoying the social and psychological benefits of work without the more limiting aspects of a full-time job.