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Retirement and the workaholism wakeup call

Some pre-retirees have a hard time giving up working. In October 2023, researchers who examined 53 studies covering more than 70,000 participants found that serious work addiction rates measure just above 14%.

We’re not talking about positive engagement here. The meta-analysis focused on a compulsive and extreme need to work that can have negative psychological, physical and social effects. The trouble is that workaholism represents the one dangerous addiction not only condoned in Western society but even considered a badge of honor.

But just as grueling work pays, it exacts a price. Retirement-age workers who refuse to surrender their responsibilities risk losing out on time with friends and loved ones, or suffering mental and physical breakdowns because, as Yin would put it, they’re “stressed out.”

People who fall in whole or in part into the workaholism camp should consider whether retirement offers them a chance to shift from an all-encompassing job focus – especially if financial circumstances give them a choice.

Janet Hook, a self-described "frazzled, 24-7 Washington political reporter," found retirement a liberation, as she chronicled in a July 2023 Washington Post column. "I’ve never been in better shape, physically,” she wrote, adding: “Workaholics of the world take heed: Quitting a full-time job is not necessarily the end of a career. For me, it was the beginning of another growth spurt."

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When work in retirement is a good thing

Slamming the brakes on work as you head into retirement can be just as stressful as refusing to give up the grind. In 2012, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health looked at a study of 5,400 individuals over the age of 50 and found that those who had retired were 40% more likely to have had a heart attack or stroke than those still working — with the increase most pronounced in the first year after retirement.

“A 2023 study conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation found that 1 in 3 adults ages 50-80 are suffering from loneliness and feeling isolated from others,” said Trevor Bogan, regional director of the Americas at Top Employer Institute, to AARP. “Knowing this lack of interaction can have damaging effects on mental and physical health, many older workers are seeking jobs where they can enjoy more socialization and interaction.”

They may also want to continue working for financial reasons.

The good news is they can still take on what the nonprofit calls “lower pressure jobs” that deliver a paycheck while keeping them socially engaged and mentally sharp. As unemployment remains near historic lows, hiring is robust in areas such as the restaurant and hospitality business, where older adults may find the flexible, part-time hours attractive.

A 2023 AARP survey found that older workers are "rethinking their priorities and looking for jobs that go beyond a paycheck and offer a meaningful experience and flexibility."

A 2023 Harris Poll of hiring managers showed a surge in older workers vying for entry-level roles compared to three years ago.

So yes, work in retirement can be an excellent tonic and way to supplement your income, if you take it easy. Aaron Yin is far from retirement age but arguably wise beyond his years when he proclaims with eyes half shut and a dreamy expression: “Work medium, play medium.”

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Lou Carlozo Freelance writer

Lou Carlozo is a freelance contributor to Moneywise.

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