Older workers blasted through another milestone recently.

The civilian labor force participation rate among people 65 and older stood at 20% in May, according to an analysis last month of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by advocacy group AARP.

That’s up from just 10.8% a little more than a generation ago in 1985. The last time the participation rate was over 20% on an annual basis was in 1961, according to Jen Schramm, senior strategic policy advisor for the AARP Public Policy Institute.

With surveys showing more than two-thirds of baby boomers plan to work past traditional retirement age, the question becomes, is 20% too low?

Age discrimination, family caregiving needs and health concerns are blocking many people from continuing to work past traditional retirement age, but it’s difficult to estimate what the numbers would be if those two hurdles were removed, Schramm said.

“Just looking at the numbers doesn’t really answer the deeper questions about why people continue to work,” she said. “Our stance is that people should be able to work for as long as they would like to and can, but they should also have (adequate) resources to retire when it’s the right decision for them.”

Most people working past age 65 are doing so for financial reasons, she said, but other factors play a significant role.

Earlier this year, Janet Dante, 73, shifted her full-time therapy practice in Bethesda, Md., so she could work three days instead of five. She had gone back to school at age 47 to obtain her professional credentials after spending several years raising children.

“Money wasn’t the only consideration for me, but it was part of it,” she said of her decision to start a new career at 50. She is quick to add that having the financial and emotional support of her husband during those retraining years was critical. Today, her reasons for continuing to work are much more about staying mentally engaged.

“Now I’m afraid of retiring,” she said. Though her husband is now retired and friends say it’s great, she worries about not finding engaging pursuits. “For me, continuing to work keeps me in a much better place. I had no idea I would still be working past 70, but as long as I’m enjoying it and doing a good job, I’m staying. When it gets to be a burden I’ll stop, but I’m not even close to that yet.”

Need a few other reasons to stay on the job? Consider these:

  • Social Security. While it’s true that working can cause your benefits to be taxable and working well into your 70s probably won’t boost your Social Security paycheck much, it’s also true that a lot of older workers took time out of the workforce and haven’t reached the 35 years of work used to calculate benefits. Doing so now can replace some zeros in that calculation. Plus, each year you delay claiming benefits past full retirement age boosts your check by 8 percent.
  • Delaying withdrawals. If you’ve hit the number in your retirement accounts to trigger the retirement green light, working a year or two longer without starting withdrawals will allow you to create a cushion. And if markets plunge, trying to go back to work in a bad economy can be difficult.
  • Keeping a routine. One of the biggest reasons people cite for leaving work is to “give up the daily grind,” long commutes and predetermined schedules. But, just as Dante feared, having no plans can lead to depression, weight gain, excessive spending and loss of self-esteem. Replacing a sense of purpose is vital in retirement, so if you haven’t yet found yours, don’t be too quick to give up what you’ve got.
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