Retirees work again to fill void

A funny thing happened to about 7 million Americans less than two years after retiring, a new study shows: They bounced back to the work force.

Funnier still - as in the strange kind of funny - was the reason: Two-thirds returned for fulfillment, not for money.


Isn't that the reason many of us flee our workplaces early, in search of a life filled with more than a daily commute and office politics? Are we so devoid of soul by the time we retire that we must strap the corporate shackles back to have self-worth?

"I choose not to see it that way," said Beth Segers, a manager with Putnam Investments, the Boston mutual fund company that sponsored the retirement research. Segers believes the data indicate more people are viewing the second half of life differently, and they want to stay active and sharp.


That was precisely the reason behind Susie Cavanaugh's decision four years ago to keep working after she retired from a 30-year teaching career.

After a stint as a consultant to educators, Cavanaugh now is a staff member of United Way who recruits minority candidates for nonprofit board positions near her home in Lexington, Ky.

She works a flexible schedule about four days a week that allows her to come in around 1 p.m. and work into the evening.

"I do my best work into the evening," which comes in handy as she recruits candidates and guides them through educational courses on becoming a better board member.

"I felt a passion for this. I always had the desire to be on boards but never had the opportunity to serve," said the 56-year-old former high school history teacher.

A bit of fear also motivated her, however.

"Before I retired, I had a couple of friends who told me they had regretted retiring. It made me realize I still had too much to give to just come and sit down."

And unpaid volunteer work still isn't given the respect that a paid position carries, she said.


Cavanaugh is not alone.

"As much as we like the idea of the freedom of retirement, many people miss accomplishing things with other people," said Marc Freedman, founder of Civic Ventures, a San Francisco organization that promotes the notion of using older adults' experience, through paid and volunteer assignments, to help nonprofits.

"In a way, the Europeans are right - we do focus excessively on work for our identity," Freedman said.

But by harnessing that energy to help people like Cavanaugh launch second careers in public service, the organization is aiming to give a higher purpose to that drive, rather than creating a work force that shows up simply by default.

Putnam's national study, called "The Working Retired," was performed by Brightwork Partners and is based on interviews with 1,726 people who retired from full-time employment and then returned to the work force.

It found that more than a third are working full time, with an overall average workweek of 29 hours. Returning workers reported average income of $86,800, or 60 percent higher than nonworking retirees, Putnam said. And six in 10 still had a mortgage.


"The people who reported they had to go back to work for financial reasons were not as content" as those who went back for fulfillment, Putnam's Segers said.

Think about this. Would you rather have your purpose determined by your productivity, or a life defined by who you are rather than what you do?

Janet Kidd Stewart writes for Tribune Media Services.