Reversing retirement

This article is posted in: Data Analysis, Inequality, Older Workers, Research, Retirement, Work

Reversing retirement

It is surprisingly common for retirees to reverse their retirement: New research from a cross-research council funded consortium led by Professor Karen Glaser at King’s College London suggests that up to one quarter of Britons have been “unretiring” in recent years. However, not everybody has the same opportunities to unretire: those who are already well-favoured may find it easier to supplement their pension income with paid work in retirement. In this blog post, Dr. Loretta Platts, the study’s lead researcher, explains more.

Does everyone want to stay retired?

At 89 years old, Devon pensioner Joe Bartley wanted to find a job. He made the headlines last year by placing an ad in a local paper to find work that would save him “from dying of boredom”, swiftly landing a job in a local café from an employer impressed by his initiative and enthusiasm. Bartley was glad to find a job that kept him in contact with people and helped him pay his rent.

As academics studying retirement, we wondered how many other retired people were doing the same as Joe Bartley and going back to paid work, which researchers call “unretiring”. Little research has looked at unretirement, but the few studies that there are, mostly from the United States, suggest that unretiring might be common. In England and Wales, the researchers Shriti Pattani, Nick Constantinovici and Siân Williams followed up NHS employees who retired due to ill health in 1998 and found that over one in ten of these retired employees took up paid work again within a year.

How common is unretirement in the United Kingdom?

Our research combined data from two British studies: the British Household Panel Study and Understanding Society, to follow people aged 50–69 years old from 1991 to 2015. We noted when participants in these studies retired and followed them in subsequent years to see whether they took up paid work again.

Retirement is a complicated and diverse process, and many people may partly retire and partly remain in paid work. We wanted to include both full and partial retirees in the sample, and therefore followed the example of earlier work by Nicole Maestas from the US in having a dual definition of retirement reversals (unretirement):

  • People who retired completely from all paid work, and then started any paid work again.
  • People who retired partially from paid work, and then took up full-time employment again.

Using this definition, we found that almost one in four retirees returned to paid work. Mostly people unretired quickly, within about four to five years. Once somebody has been retired for around ten years, their chances of returning to paid work were low.

There are several likely reasons for the drop-off in unretirement rates once people have been retired for a while: many retirees may not want to find paid work again, so once those who do want a job have found paid work, then the pool of potential unretirees is exhausted. Another reason is that it may become more difficult to find a job the longer a person has been out of the labour market. Other people may have great difficulty in finding paid work at all: according to the Labour Force Survey, over a third of British unemployed people aged 50 or more have been unsuccessfully looking for a job for more than a year.

Who manages to unretire?

Since not everybody who might want to find another job succeeds in doing so, we examined which factors affect whether a person unretires. Previous work, mostly from the United States, has suggested that men, people with more qualifications, people in better health, and people with a better financial situation are more likely to unretire. We were able to reproduce those findings in our British data. Specifically, men are about one-quarter more likely to unretire than women in the UK. We also found that compared to people who have already paid off their mortgage completely, people who owned a house with a mortgage were more likely to unretire, suggesting that to some degree retirees are returning to paid work to improve their finances. People whose partners were in paid work were more likely to unretire, which is in line with previous work suggesting that couples tend to try to retire together.

However, unretirement rates were not higher for participants who had difficulties in getting by financially. This might be because people who have money worries also have a harder time finding paid work.

What sorts of jobs do unretirees do and how do they find them?

Very little is known about how retirees find work, what jobs they do, how intensively they work, and how much they earn. Only one paper, by Ricky Kanabar has studied this in the UK, finding that men in England who unretire tend to work on average 12 hours per week, and to take home much lower earnings than they did before. It’s an open question whether retirees return to their old jobs or find new ones. And do retirees actively search for a job or do they just respond to a job opportunity that comes up?

What are the implications of unretirement for policy and practice?

This research highlights how many retirees are ready to be reengaged in the workforce and that government and employers should not forget about them. Retirees offer employers crucial skills and experience, which is particularly important since the British economy is predicted to have a shortage of skilled labour in the future. However, employers and the government could do more to support older people find paid work. While removal of the default retirement age has been a good initiative, a recent report by Business in the Community indicated that government support services are poorly adapted to helping older people return to the labour market.

The findings also demonstrated social inequalities in access to paid work in later life. Female and older retirees were less likely to return to paid work, as well as those with fewer qualifications and who were in poorer health. These results suggest that unretirement is a strategy more often used by those who are already advantaged on the labour market and that it has the potential to worsen income inequalities in later life.


The research was conducted as part of an interdisciplinary cross-research council consortium on Wellbeing, Health, Retirement and the Lifecourse (WHERL) under the Lifelong Health and Wellbeing (LLHW) programme – Extending Working Lives (ES/L002825/1), with additional support from the Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare. The research programme was led by Professor Karen Glaser, from the Institute of Gerontology, King’s College London. The study’s lead author is Dr. Loretta Platts, now at the Stress Research Institute, Stockholm University. Other collaborators on this project include Dr. Laurie M. Corna also at the Institute of Gerontology, King’s College London; Dr. Diana Worts and Professor Peggy McDonough who are at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto; and Professor Debora Price who is at the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing, University of Manchester.

Reference:  “Returns to work after retirement: A prospective study of unretirement in the United Kingdom” by Loretta G. Platts, Laurie M. Corna, Diana Worts, Peggy McDonough, Debora Price & Karen Glaser, published in Ageing & Society. []

Further reading

Business in the Community, International Longevity Centre and The Prince’s Initiative for Mature Enterprise (2015) The Missing Million: Pathways back into Employment, London, Business in the Community. Available at:

Kanabar R. Post-retirement labour supply in England. Journal of the Economics of Ageing. 2015;6:123-132. doi:10.1016/j.jeoa.2015.05.002.

Maestas N. Back to work: Expectations and realizations of work after retirement. Journal of Human Resources. 2010;45(3):718-748. doi:10.1353/jhr.2010.0011.

Pattani S, Constantinovici N, Williams S. Predictors of re-employment and quality of life in NHS staff one year after early retirement because of ill health; a national prospective study. Occup Environ Med. 2004;61(7):572-576. doi:10.1136/oem.2003.011817.

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