How HR Leaders Can Navigate A New Group Of ‘Un-Retirees’ Reentering The Workforce

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Retirement may seem like a dream, but what happens when reality sets in?

In 2021, more than half of people 55 and older said they were retired, according to data from the Pew Research Center, and that number is expected to increase as more baby boomers leave the workforce. But days filled with leisure, grandkids and golf don’t always materialize for everyone who hands in their work ID after decades on the job. 

Carla Corkern is part of a growing demographic of “un-retirees”: people who return to the workforce after an extended time away. Corkern left the workforce in 2017 at the age of 50, after selling her pharmacy automation company and signing a three-year non-compete agreement. Her husband was approaching retirement and she saw an opportunity for them to use the time together traveling. But once she left the workforce, her vision didn’t quite crystalize.

“I thought that my husband and I were going to travel more and do things together,” Corkern says. “But I discovered that my husband was more interested in doing things closer to home. I wanted to go to Europe, and he wanted to buy a boat and go out on the lake. So we had some differing priorities.” 

Financially, Corken felt stable. It was finding a purpose that was proving more difficult, she says. After her three year non-compete was up, she decided to head back to work as a chair for Vistage, a peer mentoring organization for CEOs and executives. At first, she eased in by working part-time, and has since returned to full-time hours, mentoring multiple groups of leaders each week. 

“I think my intention and getting started with Vistage was to just become a chair for a single group, where I would have some income, stay engaged with other CEOs and work with them as a guide and coach,” she says. “After about a year, I was leading another group, and then a third group, and now I’m back to working full-time. I came back with an entirely new coaching and mentoring career I love.” 

An estimated 1.5 million retirees reentered the U.S. labor market in 2021, according to analysis by job search platform Indeed. While money was a top reason for returning to work, a 2019 survey by Home Instead, a senior care provider platform, found that 44% returned to “fight boredom,” and 22% said they wanted to work to keep their minds sharp. 

Joe Galvin, Vistage’s chief research officer, says un-retirees explore a return to work for a variety of reasons: because they retired early due to COVID and want to return to work; because they can’t afford their retirement lifestyle and need to supplement their income or maintain their health insurance coverage; or because they’d like to keep their toe in the workplace on a part-time basis to add meaning to their life. For employers, these individuals can be a solution to the hiring challenges of the Great Resignation, as long as they understand an un-retiree’s motivations for coming back.  

“They’re coming back not necessarily because they want to relive their career, but to fulfill a specific need,” Galvin says. “So you have to understand what the motivations are and build the appropriate performance expectations that align with that.” 

Offering un-retirees more flexible hours and extended time off can help leaders be more aligned with an employee’s values at this stage of their life, Galvin says. The benefit to the employer is that they have workers who “know how to work” — these workers are motivated to show up every day, and can pass on valuable skills and information to younger employees. 

Galvin advises employers to avoid spending too much time reskilling or training workers who may decide to retire again in the near future, and instead accept the worker at face value. 

“Retraining or re-skilling is probably not the best use of that employee development money, since they might be working just five to eight more years,” he says. “You should be looking to hire un-retirees based on the skills they bring and their experience and knowledge. You’re hiring what you see and getting what you get.” 

Supporting employees through these choices can happen well before retirement. Corken says employers shouldn’t view retirement as “all or nothing.” To retain employees, employers need to be more flexible with their thinking around both transitioning workers out of their jobs, and adapt if they choose to return. 

“Employers should think about outcomes rather than attendance, and then not worry so much about how they get that done. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” she says. “It’s on the employer to really open up that flexibility to retain talent.”  

Her time away from the workforce and her eventual reentry has given her a new mindset about her own work and life. She admits while she was working, she often put her family second, and now considers her work choices and how they align with her priorities at home. Now 55, she has no plans for a traditional retirement. 

“I’m better off to keep working, as long as it’s fulfilling,” she says. “One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about coming back is the ability to be thoughtful about what I want to do in my life. I have more time for my non-profit work. I have more time to be available to my parents. I would really advise people to think about what areas of your life you need to invest in and be really intentional.”