BOULDER, Colo. — The transition from employment to retirement used to be marked by a date on a calendar, along with some sheet cake, and a maybe a gold watch. Those days are long gone for most workers in the United States.
Today, the journey toward complete withdrawal from the labor force can last many years. Economists refer to the transition period as "bridge employment." As more and more Americans either choose, or are forced, into bridge employment, the expectation of what retirement actually means is rapidly changing.
"We shouldn't even use the word 'retirement' any more. It obscures more than it enlightens," says Boston College economist Joseph Quinn.
Quinn's research has shown that for many seniors today, retirement is not a one-time event, but rather a process. He attributes it to a changing economic picture that encourages more seniors to choose work over leisure.
Bridge jobs, Quinn says, "tend to be lower pay and less likely to have pension and health benefits, but since many people are taking these jobs voluntarily, they obviously provide some advantages — most likely flexible hours, since more than half of the bridge jobs are part-time."
According to data from the University of Michigan's Health and Retirement Study, roughly 6 out of 10 men and women of retirement age don't plan to leave the labor force when they leave their full-time career jobs.
Factors leading to the appeal of bridge jobs include longer life expectancies and less physically demanding work, according to Quinn. His data also suggest the propensity to seek out bridge employment is highest at both ends of the wage spectrum, with blue-collar workers acting out of financial necessity, while wealthier workers think of it more as a lifestyle choice.
Laura Thompson drove a bus for 25 years in Detroit before retiring 16 years ago. "For a while I was completely retired," says Thompson. "But eventually, I just felt like I still had it in me to do something, plus the extra income is nice too."
These days Thompson keeps busy by working part time as a chef at a local homeless shelter. She says the decision was less about necessity, and more about a desire to help out. Still, she says it isn't uncommon for retired bus drivers to keep working.
"Our pensions have already been cut by the city," Thompson says, "I mean, I could probably scrape by without working, but I don't want to do that, not if I can help it."
A somewhat open question is whether bridge jobs are truly bridges to retirement or just another job change, perhaps one of many, in a seemingly unending working career.
"I don't want to be too Pollyannaish about bridge jobs because part of this is likely a reaction to the erosion of retirement security in the U.S.," says Monique Morrissey, an economist with Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank with ties to organized labor.
Morrissey says older Americans are facing a gradual erosion of retirement benefits. Specifically, she points to the transition to 401(k)s over defined-benefit pensions, as well as the eventual increase in the retirement age up to 67, a move she says amounts to an "across-the-board cut in benefits."
The fact that bridge jobs occupy an increasing portion of the labor force suggests that wage income is an increasingly important part of retirement planning for many seniors. The traditional model of a retirement income is a "three-legged stool," composed of Social Security, pensions and savings. However an analysis of census data by the Social Security Administration found that since the mid-1980s, earnings as percentage of income has more than doubled and is still rising (for people 65 and older).
Gloria Adamson, 81, says she never planned to be working this late in life. "I simply have to work," she says. "Retirement isn't even in the picture, to tell you the truth."
To cover her bills, Adamson started working as an adjunct professor in the Colorado community college system 13 years ago. According to a 2014 congressional report, most adjuncts receive no benefits, and often earn a fraction of what tenure-track faculty make. Therefore, Adamson says she was never able to build up much savings, or make adequate contributions to her pension.
For the past year she has worked full-time teaching writing and rhetoric to freshmen at the University of Colorado in Boulder, a job with better pay and benefits than what she got at the community college. She teaches three classes in addition to spending 10 hours a week tutoring students at the campus writing center.
Still, Adamson says doesn't feel cheated out of her retirement.
"I leaned a trick some time ago, that if I make my work important enough to me, I won't have a lot of time to do other things," she says, with a slight smile.
"I figure by the time I'm 100 I will be in better shape financially . I might think about retiring then."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Adam Allington is studying aging and workforce issues as part of a 10-month fellowship at The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, which joins NORC's independent research and AP journalism. The fellowship is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.