For a better retirement, you should work longer — but is that realistic?

Financial advisers and retirement coaches often have two words for people in their 50s and 60s concerned about retirement: Work longer. Doing so, they say, can boost their savings, help them receive larger Social Security benefits by delaying claiming them and provide something to do in unretirement.

The realities of working longer

“As it currently stands, working longer is not a realistic cure for retirement insecurity for many Americans,” write Lisa F. Berkman, director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, and Beth C. Truesdale, a sociologist and research fellow at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research and a visiting scientist at Berkman’s center.

They came to that conclusion after studying data about everything from older Americans’ labor-force participation to their health to their caregiving responsibilities to their wealth and income.

‘Steady outs’ and ‘intermittent’ older workers

One huge chunk of people who Berkman and Truesdale say are unlikely to be able to work longer: the group they call “steady outs.” These are the 15% of people who never worked during their 50s, according to the biennial Health and Retirement Study of Americans over 50.

The authors found that only 42% of American adults were both continuously employed in their 50s and employed at some point between ages 62 and 66. In other words, if you’re not working in your 50s, there’s a strong chance you won’t be working in your mid-to-late 60s.

“Anybody who has dropped out of the workforce, we haven’t got a prayer of helping them to go from 65 to 67,” Berkman told me.

Added Truesdale: “You can only delay retirement if you still have a job to delay retiring from. While it’s not impossible that somebody who’s out of the labor force in their 50s could come back and do work later on, it’s extremely rare.”

Another 34% of Americans over 50 are what the “Overtime” authors call “intermittents” — they’re in and out of the workforce in their 50s.

“If we made policy changes that made it more plausible for more of those people to have steadier and more remunerative employment during their 50s, I think they would have a better shot at being able to stay in the labor force longer,” said Truesdale.

Why some older adults don’t work for pay

People who aren’t working in their 50s are out of the workforce for a variety of reasons: their health or a family member’s, caregiving responsibilities, and age discrimination keeping them from getting hired are three big ones.

A fourth is employers’ working conditions — “the fact that work can be precarious or that schedules are really hard to predict and hard to accommodate for families and for workers,” Berkman said.

In fact, the authors conclude, improving working conditions could go a long way to helping people work in their 50s and then, if they wanted, to work in their 60s or longer.

“Working conditions are modifiable,” said Berkman. “We could easily move to a society in which we could accommodate people who have health conditions and caregiving and work family kind of responsibilities if we wanted to. If we made it easier for people to stay in the workforce, maybe they would stay in the workforce.”

Read: Why a lot of age-friendly jobs aren’t going to older workers

Working longer: dreams and realities

U.S. workers are far more likely to expect to work longer than Americans actually do. In the latest Employee Benefit Research Institute Retirement Confidence Survey, 29% of workers said they expect to either retire at 70 or older or never retire at all. But only 7% of retirees actually retired after age 69; 42% retired by 61. The median retirement age these days: 62.

Americans have been working longer in recent years than in the past, on average, as a recent paper by American Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Andrew G. Biggs noted.

“For decades, labor-force participation at older ages had been declining, encouraged by the introduction of early Social Security benefits in the late 1950s and early 1960s,” Biggs wrote. “But today, Americans aged 62 to 65 are participating in the labor force at the highest rates since data collection began in the early 1960s.”

Predicting a reversal in the working longer trend

Berkman and Truesdale don’t expect that trend to continue, though.

“Extending healthy life expectancy is not something that seems automatic in our future right now,” said Berkman. “The United States has slipped in terms of life expectancy from being in the middle of OECD countries to being at the very bottom.”

U.S. life expectancy rates are especially worrisome for Americans with less education and lower incomes, she added. “Inequality, we believe, drives some part of this,” said Berkman.

The size of inequalities, especially by levels of education, “really dwarfs the relatively small changes that you see even across the course of two or three decades in terms of changes in the labor force,” Truesdale noted. And, she added, the labor-force participation for prime-age men has been falling.

Challenges many may face

The upshot, according to Berkman: “People who have more resources, are better educated, have better health and minimal caregiving responsibilities may well be able to work longer and want to work longer and be in jobs that enable them to work longer.”

I count myself among the lucky ones, working part time in retirement at age 66 as a freelance writer and editor.

Others won’t be so lucky.

“The majority of people will have some kind of challenge, going forward” to working longer, Berkman said. However, Truesdale noted, “even people who start with all the advantages can’t necessarily take the idea that they’re going to work longer, and retire with security, for granted.”

What could help 

Berkman and Truesdale would like to see federal and state governments and employers make changes that could help more people work longer if they’d like.

They’re talking about requiring 401(k)-type workplace retirement plans; creating state-run programs for residents without retirement plans; making jobs more age-friendly; reducing age discrimination by employers and raising the minimum wage.

They’d also like to see retirement economists, labor economists and organizational psychologists join forces to address prospects for working longer.

“It has been interesting how siloed these areas are,” said Berkman. “Retirement economists think about savings and incentives for Social Security and about pensions; they don’t think about the labor force or working conditions. Labor economists and organizational psychologists think about how companies work and what create good jobs and don’t think about working longer or retirement. It’s like they’re two separate worlds; they need to be talking to each other.”

The Authors’ Advice

For now, if you’re expecting to work longer to improve your financial security in retirement, the “Overtime” authors say, you need a Plan B.

“Optimism is good for our health,” said Berkman. “We’d all like to be perfectly healthy through the 60s and 70s and 80s. But it doesn’t happen like that. So, people have to be prepared to have an alternate path that’s sustainable.”