Retirement Patterns and Bridge Jobs in the 1990s

February 1999
EBRI Issue Brief #206
Paperback, 24 pp.
PDF, 135 kb
Employee Benefit Research Institute, 1999

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Executive Summary

  • During most of the post-World War II period, American men have been leaving the labor force at earlier and earlier ages. Evidence suggests that this trend has been under way for more than a century. However, in the mid-1980s, this trend came to an abrupt halt. Male labor force participation rates have been flat since 1985, and have actually increased over the past several years. Understanding these issues is especially important, given the looming increase in the Social Security normal retirement age to 67 and the possibility of even more increases in the ages of eligibility under Social Security and Medicare reform.
  • Because of the influx of married women into the labor market in the post-World War II period, older women's participation rates did not decline as men's did. In contrast, their rates were relatively steady, rising or falling very slowly. Since the mid-1980s, however, older women's participation rates have increased significantly. Many more older men and women are working today than the pre-1986 trends would have suggested.
  • Many older Americans leave the labor force gradually, utilizing “bridge jobs” between employment on a full-time career job and complete labor force withdrawal. These bridge jobs are often part-time, often in a new line of work, and sometimes involve a switch from wage and salary work to self-employment. Estimates suggest that between one-third and one-half of older Americans will work on a bridge job before retiring completely, and for these workers retirement is best viewed as a process, not as a single event.
  • These changes in retirement behavior are consistent with societal changes that have altered the relative attractiveness of work and leisure late in life. Mandatory retirement has been outlawed for most American workers. Social Security has become more age-neutral, no longer penalizing the average worker who wants to continue working after age 65. An increasing proportion of employer pension coverage has been in defined contribution plans, which do not contain the age-specific retirement incentives that many defined benefit plans do. The composition of jobs has shifted from manufacturing to service occupations. Americans are living longer and healthier lives, and many look forward to years of productive activity after age 65.
  • These structural changes have been accompanied by an important cyclical factor: the strength of the American economy over the past decade. This has increased the demand for all types of labor, including older workers. Evidence suggests that there is more than this cyclical factor at work, however, and that new attitudes about work late in life are developing.
  • Labor supply decisions late in life are correlated in expected ways with the individual's health (measured in several ways), age, and pension and health insurance status.
  • Retirement patterns in America are much richer and more varied than the stereotypical one-step view of retirement suggests. Public policy is changing in ways that make continued work late in life more likely. If employers are willing to provide flexible job opportunities to meet the needs of these potential employees, then society can tap a growing pool of older, experienced, and willing workers for years to come.