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An older teacher faces his students in a classroom
The over-50 population is responsible for nearly 100 million jobs and over $4.5 trillion in wages and salaries.

What Will We Do With All the Extra Time?

Toby Hodes ’58 estimates she’s changed careers five times over the course of her working life. She’s been a textile chemist, bought jet engine parts for General Electric and was a career counselor. Now 81, Hodes has been actively involved with the Learning in Retirement Association for the past 20 years. Run in partnership with UMass Lowell’s Office of Alumni Affairs and Office of Community Relations, LIRA provides members with college-level learning experiences—taught by fellow members.

“So much research has been done on socialization among older people and how it really adds to the quality and quantity of life,” says Hodes, who served as LIRA president for six years. She joined the group when she realized she didn’t want to sit around the house all day as a retiree.

While most LIRA members aren’t looking to rejoin the workforce (its oldest member is a 96-year-old woman who still drives and lives on her own), Hodes says the organization is proof that it’s never too late to learn.

“The courses I’ve taken and facilitated are all the things I wish I’d had time to learn when I was going to college but didn’t. This gives me the opportunity,” says Hodes, who has particularly enjoyed classes on comparative religion. “LIRA has been a true blessing for me.”

Hodes is not alone when it comes to not wanting to sit around the house all day. Indeed, many older Americans are staying in the workplace well into their 70s and 80s. In fact, people aged 65 and older are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nation’s workforce will grow to about 164 million people by 2024. Of those workers, 13 million are expected to be 65-plus.

But as people work later in life, how does that impact their definitions of success and life satisfaction? How do they transition to second (or third) careers? With so many rapid advances in technology, is it ever too late to learn a new field?

Illustration of older, working men and women


Andrew Hostetler is an associate professor of psychology in the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. One of his primary areas of research is adult development and aging, particularly the “emerging seniors” (ages 55-64) and the “young old seniors” (65-74).

“I’m really interested in how people think about their later years in terms of their potential to do things that are meaningful and important to them,” says Hostetler, who notes that in Japan, the concept of ikigai (one’s reason for living) has been linked to longer lifespans on the island of Okinawa. “Whether it’s through paid work or not, having that reason to get out of bed, having that thing that keeps you engaged and on the move, is really important.”

Traditionally, people entered their “third age” of life, or post-retirement years, with the same energy and stamina of middle age, but without all the responsibilities of child-rearing and work. They could travel, take up hobbies and maybe play some golf or tennis.

“But for a variety of reasons, whether by choice or not, the role of seniors has changed,” Hostetler says. “More older adults are working and providing for their family."

Hostetler is concerned that in the U.S., a “bucket list” mentality is being promoted to those in later adulthood, counteracting the reality that many older people need to work.

“We’re selling what I call the ‘sexy senior lifestyle’ to older adults, whether or not they can afford it,” says Hostetler, who questions whether these pursuits lead to true fulfillment. “It’s not clear we’ve given people a whole lot of guidance around meaning, other than paid work.”


Thanks to new app-centric companies like Uber, TaskRabbit and Airbnb, the gig economy is often thought of as a young person’s game—something for millennials who crave the independence and flexibility of short-term work commitments.

But in reality, older workers have much higher rates of self-employment than do younger workers, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

“It’s good that older people can move from job to job, but where’s the security going to come from?” Psychology Prof. Sarah Kuhn says of the trend. “As older people continue to work, they may have Medicare, but they may still have to pay for supplemental coverage and things like that. If they could live on their Social Security or pensions, maybe they would be able to take unpaid work and contribute to nonprofit organizations and other causes.”

One way older Americans are increasingly contributing to society is in education, says John Brown, a clinical associate professor in the College of Education. Though he primarily trains teachers at the beginning of their careers, Brown says he is seeing a growing number of older adults who are looking to shift gears later in life and teachers. He says it can be good both for their financial and mental well-being.

“To get a new job, you have to have new skills. You have to have a new education and new training. And when you do that, that keeps your brain healthy,” says Brown, who notes that “there’s a lot of research that shows that could put off neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s or other geriatric diseases that include memory loss or mood swings.”