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What age is too old to keep working?

Breaking down the basics of "F.I.R.E."

These days it's hardly unusual to hear older workers say they plan to work well into their retirement years.

For example, more than half (53 percent) of workers report that they expect to work beyond age 65, according to a recent survey by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. And roughly one in eight (13 percent) say they don't plan to retire at all.

But how long can workers realistically expect to stay on the job? The Transamerica survey provides some interesting insights into this question.

When asked what age might be considered "too old to work," more than half said it depended on the person and didn't identify a specific age. Of those who provided an age, the median was 75.

When asked about the age someone is considered to be "old," two in five workers (40 percent) said it depended on the person and didn't identify a specific age. Of those who provided an age, the median was 70 -- five years younger than being considered too old to work!

Putting these two statistics together, it seems to be OK for a person who's deemed to be "old" to continue working, at least for about five years.

When asked how long they expect to live, the median survey response was to age 90, reported by baby boomers, Gen-Xers, and millennials alike. This means if someone worked until age 75, they would still expect a retirement to last about 15 years, nearly double the eight-year average period of retirement for retirees in the 1950s.

As you might expect, workers' views on being old depend a lot on their own age, as follows:

  • 75 is the median age reported by boomers as "old," the same age they consider people to be too old to work.
  • 70 is the median age reported by Gen-Xers as "old," while 75 is the median age they consider people to be too old to work.
  • 65 is the median age reported by millennials as "old," while 70 is the median age they consider people to be too old to work.

Recent research supports the notion that older people can work beyond traditional retirement ages. For example, one recent survey showed that more than three-fourths (77 percent) of people age 75 to 79 report no health-based limitation in their ability to work or complete housework. Another study provides statistical evidence that the notion of "old" has been getting older over many decades as people are, on average, living longer, healthier lives.

When it comes to thinking about working longer, many people are concerned about ageism. But what are people's perceptions about older workers? 

The Transamerica survey shows a realistic mix of positive and negative perceptions: More than three-fourths (84 percent) reported positive perceptions, but more than half (54 percent) also reported negative perceptions. The top three positive perceptions of older workers were that they:

  • Bring more knowledge, wisdom and life experience
  • Are more responsible, reliable and dependable
  • Are a valuable resource for training and mentoring

The top three negative perceptions of older workers were that they:

  • Have higher health care costs
  • Command higher wages and salaries
  • Are less open to learning and new ideas

Predictably, boomers were more likely to have positive perceptions and less likely to have negative perceptions, compared to Gen-Xers and millennials.

The longevity revolution raises many issues we'll all need to navigate and adjust to as individuals, employers and society. But it's a good challenge to have, considering the alternative of living shorter lives.