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When should I retire? It may be much later in life than you think.

Career and retirement planning used to be straightforward: You climbed the career ladder before leaving to enjoy a couple of twilight decades of retirement. It was a binary proposition − you were working until you weren’t.

Those days are as bygone as pension plans. Demographics and desire are reshaping the very idea of retirement − what it involves, when and how people do it. This is not your parents’ retirement plan. Society’s infrastructure and attitudes have to adjust to this new world of work − and quickly.

While most Americans still want a traditional, full-stop retirement, it is a smaller majority than you might expect. According to a recent Harris Poll survey, 56% of Americans eventually want to leave the workforce. The rest are a mix: 30% want to partially retire (working part-time or consulting, for example), while 7% never plan to stop working and 6% don’t know what they want to do.

About 1 in 5 Americans 65 and older were employed last year, according to a 2023 Pew Research Center report − nearly double the approximately 1 in 10 who still worked in the 1980s.

While most Americans still want a traditional, full-stop retirement, it is a smaller majority than you might expect.
While most Americans still want a traditional, full-stop retirement, it is a smaller majority than you might expect.

The way we view retirement is changing

On the retirement issue, three distinct camps are emerging: The “clean breakers” (full retirement), the “re-inventors” (transition to part-time work) and the “never-stoppers” (no retirement).

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Strikingly, according to our survey, the desire to fully retire is strongest among younger workers and diminishes the closer one gets to the actual end of one’s career. So, while 63% of non-retired workers under the age of 34 look forward to a full retirement, that figure drops to 59% among those ages 35 to 54 and then plummets to 36% for those 55 and older.

Better pay, no job: High wages, 32-hour workweeks sound great, but there's a steep price

There is an immutable economic logic to this: Too many Americans don’t feel financially ready to leave the workforce. We can see a new kind of job-lock − people unable to retire because they can’t afford to do so.

We’re 40 years into a massive shift in how people pay for retirement. In 1984, the number of Americans with defined contribution plans such as IRAs exceeded the number with pension-type plans for the first time, and we’re still grappling with what that means.

Potential workers and employers engaged at a job fair this month in Fort Pierce, Florida.
Potential workers and employers engaged at a job fair this month in Fort Pierce, Florida.

But there’s something more at work here. Life expectancy has grown over time, casting the post-65 years in a different light.

Americans now think not only in terms of a protracted life span but also health span (how long you’re not simply alive but healthy) and, yes, work span.

Older people are working longer. Corporate America, take note.

What were once twilight years are looking brighter and longer. Suddenly, 65 no longer seems like the end point for work.

What does that mean for corporate America? Multigenerational work is here to stay, and today’s companies need to harness the potential of not just three or four generations, but five.

Work-life balance is a life. We need to create better workplaces.

Leaning into the emerging multigenerational workforce − with five generations working side-by-side − will lead to higher output and economic growth. A 2020 study from the World Economic Forum and other researchers estimated that investing in this future will raise per-capita GDP by almost 19% over the next 30 years.

It makes sense intuitively: Older workers take a wealth of experience with them when they walk out the door, so retaining them is a plus. Modern business strategy dictates that a diversity of experience and views lead to stronger outcomes.

Some forward-looking companies are already gearing up to take full advantage of the gray-hued workforce of tomorrow. General Motors and Boeing have started return-ship programs, allowing older workers to return to their jobs and add value.

Other companies are looking for ways to retain older workers. Microsoft, for example, is keeping benefits largely stable even as older employees shift to part-time work, while Marriott offers more flexible scheduling. These case studies shouldn’t be outliers; they are trailblazers.

The companies that fail to take advantage of expanding work spans are leaving value and money on the table. Relying on three or four generations alone to contribute is a thing of the past. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before chief longevity officers take their place in the C-suite.

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While the age of America’s presidential candidates is a hot-button issue in 2024, we should get used to our graying reality. Increased participation in society is a positive development, with older Americans bringing the perspective that millennials or Generation Z haven’t yet accumulated. Not only are baby boomers more experienced, but they also exhibit the lowest levels of burnout and highest levels of engagement at work.

As long as these older participants remain sharp and passionate about solving problems, a multigenerational America is a more robust society.

Who knows: Maybe in a few decades, people won’t be so freaked out by septuagenarians running companies like JPMorgan Chase or Microsoft − or winning the White House.

Will Johnson serves as CEO of The Harris Poll, one of the world’s leading public opinion, market research and strategy firms.

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Can I retire now? Older people are working longer. It's good, actually