Karen Winters is an artist who works from home. Rex Shields is a building inspector, who is always out in the field. The two are different in most respects except one. They’re long past traditional retirement age, but working. They both say that they’ll never retire.

If the recent stock market plunge left you panicky and wondering whether you’ll be able to finance your retirement, Winters and Shields should give you some comfort. Like millions of retirees, they’re working and earning good money — primarily because they want to, not just for pay. And today’s rapidly expanding freelance economy gives seniors who want to work more opportunities than ever before.

“When I don’t work, I don’t know what to do with myself,” says Shields, 81.

Adds Winters: “If I’m not at my easel, I’m marketing or studying my craft. It’s just like a real job, but it’s fun,” she says. “As long as I have my eyesight and the use of my hands, I intend to keep producing.”

Working past retirement age

Winters and Shields are a bit unusual in that they’re both working full-time. Many of their contemporaries have cut back to part-time schedules to accommodate travel or grandkids.

But working past retirement age is a rapidly growing trend. Roughly one in every five Americans over the age of 65 are working at least part-time today. And that proportion is expect to rise to nearly one in three over the coming decade. In fact, seniors are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A recent study by payroll experts at ADP found that roughly one-third of contract workers are over the age of 55. Roughly 40% of these individuals consider themselves “retired,” even though they continue to earn money. More than any other age group, seniors maintain that the primary reason they’re working is to “do what I enjoy.”

Motivations

Dozens of factors, including healthier lifestyles and rising longevity are fueling the trend. Longer, healthier lives make seniors better able to work — and more convinced that they may need to work longer to avoid outliving their savings.

“Even when earning the money is not an absolute necessity, there is something reassuring about having some money coming in so that you are not drawing down savings, particularly in uncertain times like these,” says Nancy Collamer, retirement coach at MyLifestyleCareer.com.

That’s more important than ever as concerns about the Coronavirus turn the stock market into a terrifying rollercoaster ride. Retirees who are forced to draw down savings during a downturn can end up depleting their nest-eggs far faster than they’d planned.

Delaying retirement

“When you look at the money you have, the money you’ll need and how long you’re going to need it, all of a sudden working a few more years looks pretty good,” says Joanne Cleaver, author of The Career Lattice. “Working gives you some control — some power over your destiny — even if it’s just for a few more years.”

The so-called gig economy — online platforms that connect people with jobs, renters and clients — also plays a role. Where the traditional workforce arguably  discriminates against older workers, online platforms are age-agnostic. Most accept anyone who meets certain requirements, such as passing a background check and being old enough to sign a legal contract. 

Courting seniors

In fact, many online platforms cater to older people, realizing that they have both experience and assets. A site called SilverNest, for instance, aims to find full-time renters for seniors with extra space. The site markets itself as a sort of eHarmony for older homeowners, matching background-checked renters with compatible empty nesters.

Meanwhile, Work at Home Vintage Experts — a.k.a. WAHVE — specifically courts young retirees for flexible and part-time jobs in insurance, human resources and accounting.

CoolWorks, which connects workers with jobs in National Parks and resorts, also prefers active retirees for both their experience and their “soft skills” — like good manners and patience. 

Embracing gig platforms

Even the gig sites that don’t specifically cater to seniors are at least welcoming. And seniors have started to embrace them. Athleen Novack, 73, for instance, rents her house out through Airbnb. She says her whole house is rented roughly 50% of the time. 

What does she do when the house is rented? She visits friends, family and travels. The rental income more than pays the mortgage and for for her trips, she says. It allows her the occasional luxury of a big splurge, like the time she took seven members of her family to the Bahamas for her 70th birthday.

“Am I lucky, or what?” says the retired school teacher, who likes to play basketball several nights a week. “I don’t have any money worries at this point. I just like the opportunity.”

Naturally, money is a motivating factor for other seniors.

Juli Thurston retired early to take care of ailing parents, for instance. But when her parents got well enough to care for themselves, she was at an age where it’s difficult to find a new full-time job. The 60-year-old is now testing out side hustles, such as working part-time for the U.S. Census Bureau.

Penny Goss, 58, has a similar story. She’s still caring for her dad, but dog and house-sits to earn extra cash. She helps people organize their homes too, charging $20 per hour. Goss, who lives in San Diego, advertises her availability on Nextdoor, a free neighborhood website. She says the response has been so dramatic, that’s she’s had to hire someone to help her.  

Second chance

Like Winters, however, what motivates many seniors is the ability to try something completely new — often a passion project. When Winters was working and raising children, she says she simply didn’t have time for art. But when the kids moved away, she decided to scale back on the day job to pursue her artistic passions. 

Within months, she was selling paintings. She never looked back.

Shields studied engineering in college, but worked for the police force for 30 years. When he retired, he wanted to put his engineering skills to work. He started taking jobs in construction, ran his own concrete business, and then transitioned into commercial building inspecting. He supervises a crew of 5 to 10 contractors and loves what he does. 

“I never was a golfer, and you can only travel so much,” he says. “This is a good job. You get to think every day. As long as I can take the vacations I want, I’ll keep working.”