Downshifting, Not Retiring

Jim Thompson, who spent 30 years as a firefighter, returned to the fire service as a code enforcer.
Jim Thompson, who spent 30 years as a firefighter, returned to the fire service as a code enforcer. (Photo Courtesy Of Jim Thompson)
By Martha M. Hamilton
Sunday, February 11, 2007

There's a lot of talk these days about a "new retirement" that's expected to flourish as a wave of workers reach their 60s during the next two decades. According to popular wisdom, the road to retirement for these folks doesn't end in the rec room at Leisure World, but instead promises a mix of work and pleasure.

However, the Vanguard Center for Retirement Research looked at those forecasts and compared them with current reality, and in a recent report, authors John Ameriks, Holly B. Fergusson, Anna B. Madamba and Stephen P. Utkus concluded the trend is not so new.

"Many older individuals have already been involved in some type of work at traditional retirement ages," according to the report, "Six Paths to Retirement." "This suggests that the notion of a 'new retirement' for the baby boom generation -- involving both work and leisure -- is actually not that new at all, but a continuation of past trends."

They used a term I liked very much to suggest what goes on as people begin to move out of longtime jobs. They called it downshifting. Downshifting is either postponing retirement; reducing hours; or shifting to a less stressful, simpler, or -- sometimes -- a more meaningful and personally satisfying job.

Downshifting is the path taken by Sam Parsons, a Fairfax County resident who worked as a manufacturer's representative for auto parts maker Gates Rubber until age 62, when a buyout offer came his way. "They were in a downsizing mode, and they gave me the option to get out and keep my health benefits," he said. "I also had a pension, which is rare." So he took the deal.

A year later, though, "I was staring at the walls," he said. Some of his friends suggested he work as a tour guide. "They said, 'Your mouth is always going, and you're a D.C. native," Parsons said.

He took their advice, and at 68 he conducts tours of the capital in the spring and fall and around Christmas. He said he loves the challenge of leading around large groups where sometimes unexpected events require quick reflexes. For instance, when a teacher's head cracked a bus window and put both out of commission, "it was, 'Kids, put on your tennis shoes. We're going walking,' " he said.

The job lets him avoid tapping his retirement savings and leaves him free to pursue other pastimes. In the winter he skis, and in the summer he travels. His wife still works full time and his children are launched. He puts himself squarely in a path to retirement that Vanguard identified as "work and play."

Vanguard predicts that the distinction between work and retirement will become more fluid in the future for a number of reasons. First, retiring baby boomers will rely increasingly on their own savings for retirement rather than traditional pension, which means they may have to work longer. Also, they are generally better educated and healthier than their parents and less likely to be physically worn out by work. And many of them will want to work.

"For both midcareer and older Americans, the demand for downshifting in the future is even higher than the actual rate of downshifting reported in our study," the Vanguard authors found.

Several readers wrote in to share their experiences with downshifting. One was Jim Thompson, who fits a category that Vanguard calls "returnees," people who leave work entirely but then return. Thompson, who spent 30 years as a firefighter in Charlotte, retired as a battalion chief in December.

"As I soon learned, retirement is not all it is cracked up to be unless you won the lottery somewhere along the line and have 20 cruises and international trips lined up," Thompson wrote. He said he recently returned to the fire service as code enforcement official for the state of North Carolina, a physically less taxing position but one that's just as important to fire safety.

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