What is retirement? For many people, the traditional picture is of a time when we say goodbye to colleagues and enter a life of full-time leisure.
That picture remains powerful, yet what’s striking today is the variety of approaches to this stage of life — approaches that often include some work. Think semiretirement, self-employment, part-time work and flexible hours. But we still don’t have a common language for describing that montage of late-life activities.
Unretirement? Reinvention? Next chapter?
Whichever label you prefer, thanks to the combination of longer lives (on average) and lower birthrates, the U.S. workforce is aging along with the population. More people are earning an income into their 60s and 70s for a variety of reasons, ranging from financial necessity to finding meaning by continuing to use skills developed over a long career. For many people, it’s a combination of the two.
The share of workers who are 55 and older has almost doubled over the past two decades, from 13% to 23%.
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There is much to applaud about an older workforce putting in more years on the job, but there are also concerns about the quality of life at work. Are the additional years of labor adding to a person’s sense of purpose and connection to everyday life, or are they simply increasing the time spent in drudgery for pay?
Read: Older Americans will spend 12 years living with disability or disease — why are we so unhealthy?
Here’s where the experience of America’s farmers can offer some insights for an aging society and workforce.
Farmers and ranchers, who make up just 1.3% of the workforce and mostly own their businesses, work much longer than people in other fields and occupations. And there’s compelling evidence that farmers typically stay engaged on the farm because they want to, rather than because they need to.
“They enjoy farming,” says Carl Zulauf, a professor emeritus in the department of agricultural, environmental and development economics at Ohio State University. “Whatever kind of farming they are in, it brings them a tremendous amount of meaning just to farm.”
Wanda Patsche is one of those farmers. She and her husband of 45 years, Chuck, work 1,100 acres in Martin County in southern Minnesota. They raise corn, soybeans, and pigs on their independently owned and operated farm. Chuck was raised on a farm and marriage brought Wanda into the business, but they share a deep connection to their work, to the land and to their community.
“We’re growing food for others. We’re close to nature. We’re doing what we love. We are our own bosses, in a sense,” says Wanda. “It’s hard to let go.”
There are a number of factors that help farmers stay engaged well into their traditional retirement years. Three in particular are worth highlighting, because each holds lessons for workers in other professions: technological innovation, lessening the workload and keeping a sense of purpose.
Technological advances have definitely made it easier for farmers to keep working longer. A classic example is GPS field navigation, which has made crop farming less stressful mentally and less demanding physically. So have air-conditioned cabs, self-steering tractors and other innovations.
“There’s no question in my mind one of the reasons farmers are farming longer is technology,” says Zulauf. “It’s an underrated story.”
Taking a step back
Older farmers also favor semiretirement over retirement. In their later years, they tend to focus on the jobs they enjoy and leave the more arduous tasks to others. They can also ease up on their responsibilities by renting out land to other farmers.
“Folks close to retirement whittle it down to what they like to do,” says Todd Kuethe, an associate professor in the department of agricultural economics at Purdue University.
Wanda and Chuck Patsche, ages 64 and 67, respectively, are talking about how they might pull back. Their idea is to eventually let go of their hog business, which is labor intensive, and continue to grow corn and soybeans. The crop side of their business offers them greater flexibility. Plus, from our conversation it’s clear Wanda is reluctant to give up the enjoyment she gets from running the combine.
“We both have said as long as we have our health, we will crop farm as long as we can,” says Wanda, while noting, “We’ll definitely take a step back.”
A life with purpose
Social isolation and loneliness are a risk with age, and that may be particularly true in rural areas, but farming offers people a continuing sense of purpose and connection. When researchers at Texas A&M University interviewed 20 rural Texas landowners ages 29 to 80, the farmers they surveyed said they felt a deep bond to and responsibility for their land, which also provided opportunities for community involvement and family traditions.
The reason farmers retire later than people in many other occupations “seems to come down to [the fact that] they have extremely strong connections to their work and the land they farm,” says Christina Matz, an associate professor in Boston College’s school of social work and the co-director of its Center on Aging & Work.
The research is compelling that older workers in any field do best when their job gives them meaning — a sense that what they’re doing makes a difference. And surveys routinely show that the desire for greater flexibility and fewer work hours is strong among older workers. Technology is making many jobs more age-friendly, too.
There’s another takeaway from the experience of the farm community. Retirement policy often focuses on Social Security and retirement savings. These issues are important, of course. But the experience of farmers shows that more resources and effort should go toward improving the work experience over a lifetime. Older workers who are able to construct a montage of fulfilling activities in their later years typically had careers that came with retirement and health-insurance benefits, good working conditions and opportunities for advancement. Those who struggle in their retirement years often labored at jobs with low or unstable incomes and few career opportunities.
“We spend a lot of time in the work environment,” Ursula Staudinger, the rector of the Technical University of Dresden and a professor of interdisciplinary aging science, said in a talk at Columbia University. “Cumulatively, what does it do to us?”
For farmers, on average, the answer seems to be that their work experience pays off emotionally, psychologically and financially in their later years. For more people in other professions and occupations to feel the same will require an effort to redesign work to be fulfilling and engaging long before retirement.