NEW YORK - Close to one in five Americans who's 65 or older is still working, the highest percentage in more than half a century. And that one who's still working may be better off.
As more and more Americans delay retirement, those with a college degree are finding it easiest to keep working past 65 while their less-educated peers are having a more difficult time staying in the workforce.
It's a crucial distinction because financial experts say both groups would benefit from working an extra year or more to improve their retirement security. By staying on the job, older Americans can build up their savings, which in too many cases are inadequate. Plus, they can allow bigger Social Security benefits to accrue. Besides, many older Americans like the idea of staying engaged by working.
Less-educated Americans, though, aren't always able to follow this path, even though they tend to have less in retirement savings. Instead, many are forced to retire before their mid-60s because of poor health, the inability to do jobs that require a lot of physical activity or other reasons.
"If less-educated people were retiring early and comfortable in their retirement years, good for them, but we know they aren't," said Matt Rutledge, research economist at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
The gap in retirement ages is widening between college and high-school graduates, Rutledge said, one that's most apparent when looking at the average age of retirement for men. The increasing number of women in the workforce in recent decades can skew the overall figures.
Men with college degrees are retiring at an average age of 65.7, according to Rutledge's calculations based on government data. That's nearly three years later than men with only high-school degrees, who are retiring at an average age of 62.8.
In the late 1970s, though, the two groups were retiring at nearly the same age: 64.6 for college graduates and 64.1 for high-school graduates.
"We see people intending to work a whole lot longer, but the problem is that for the most part, it's a lot easier for the college graduates to fulfill that plan," Rutledge said.
This divide between highly educated and less-educated Americans begins long before the golden years. Starting from their 20s, college graduates are more likely to have jobs and to make more money than their less-educated peers. Last year, for example, the typical college graduate earned nearly two-thirds more than the typical high-school graduate, among all workers aged 25 and above.
That's driving a split in retirement savings: The typical households run by someone with a college degree has $116,900 in a retirement account, more than triple the $36,000 median for households run by someone with only a high-school diploma.
What's fueling the retirement divide
Health is a big factor in deciding when to retire, Rutledge said. A stroke, heart attack or depression could knock anyone into an earlier-than-expected retirement, but less-educated Americans tend to have worse health as a group than their higher-educated peers.
Less-educated Americans also are more likely to be in physically demanding jobs, which are tougher to keep as age increases.
Among men aged 50 and over, for example, 61 percent of workers without a college degree have to move heavy loads (or people) as a regular part of their job. That's more than double the 23 percent rate of their college-graduate peers, according to researchers at Harvard University, RAND Corp. and the University of California, Los Angeles. Lower-educated workers also are much more likely to have jobs that require them to stand all the time, do repetitive hand movements or be in tiring or painful positions.
"It's much easier to work sitting down at a computer at 65 than in a warehouse," said Craig Copeland, senior research associate with the Employee Benefit Research Institute.
The federal government said in its latest employment report on Friday that 19.2 percent of everyone aged 65 and over was employed, as of September. That's tied for the highest rate since 1962, and it's nearly double the level of the mid-1980s.
Why keep working
Incentives are aligned for people to keep working, even past their mid-60s.
When clients at wealth adviser Brouwer & Janachowski come to CEO Stephen Janachowski, he shows them how much in spending money they'll have each year in retirement, if they retire at 62. But then he shows how much larger that number would be if they wait until 67. It's as much as 50 percent higher in some cases.
"We're not even trying to talk them into it," he said. "It's more giving them options. Do you want to be able to take more trips, spend more time with your family, and is it worth it to you to work longer and have more of those things?"
Consider someone who turns 66 this year and would get $1,000 monthly as their Social Security benefit. If that person had retired at 62, their monthly benefit would have been only $750. And for each year they delay getting benefits past 66, the size of that benefit will grow by 8 percent, until they reach age 70.
A busy set of golden years
Gerry Goldsholle just celebrated his 78th birthday, and he's still working. He has degrees from William and Mary and Columbia University, and after a roughly two-decade career with MetLife, he took an early-retirement offer when he was 50 years old.
His first wife had recently died, and he was ready for a big change. But after just three months of retirement, he was bored. "I missed the action and working with smart people," he said.
He started doing consulting work after people from his days with MetLife reached out to him for help with projects. This gig grew into Advice Co., which runs the legal-advice site FreeAdvice.com. Goldsholle is CEO of the company and also travels extensively with his wife -- he remarried in 1996 -- who says she would prefer that he "re-retire."
"But I think she knows that's not likely as long as I remain healthy and so long as my colleagues and I feel I am making a positive contribution," he said in an email interview.
A tougher time
Beverly Morris, 58, wants to work, but finding a job isn't easy.
The Austin, Texas, resident used to have a good job filing insurance claims, but she recently began taking care of her six grandchildren after her daughter ran into trouble with drugs. That meant she couldn't work nights anymore.
Morris said during job interviews she can tell her age and lack of a college degree are hindering her, based on the questions asked. Ageism is a problem across the economy for people as young as 40, according to AARP, which has started a job board to help connect older workers with jobs in light of this challenge.
In the meantime, she does work for delivery services such as GrubHub and Doordash to make ends meet.
She had started college but didn't finish it because of the appeal of the working life. "I could get a decent job without a degree," Morris said. "It's not like that now."