Americans are working until later and later in life. That’s in part because of longer life spans, and in part because many older adults are behind in retirement savings and have to stick it out. (According to one 2022 survey, 71% of baby boomers say they feel behind on saving for retirement.)
As a result, the workforce is becoming older than ever. As The Washington Post reported in July, people under age 40 made up more than 60% of the workforce in 1984. Today, that number has fallen to 45%. Over that same period, workers over 60 have become twice as common.
It’s not just money concerns that keep baby boomers ― the generation born between 1946 and 1964 ― working. There are plenty of older adults who want to keep clocking in because their sense of worth and community is tied to their work. As the Boston College Center for Retirement Research summed it up in 2016, people need more than financial security to make the leap to retirement.
Still, working into your 60s, 70s or even 80s doesn’t exactly match everyone’s idea of the “golden years.” If you’re an adult child of someone who’s nearing retirement but still working, it’s natural to want them to let go a little and finally enjoy everything they’ve worked for. In various Reddit communities, there’s no shortage of millennials asking “How do I retire my parents?” or discussing what it was like to have “the talk” about retirement with a parent.
But could it come across as an overstep, or a tad condescending, to have that talk? Is asking Have you thought about retiring soon? a bit “helicopter child” of you? (Helicopter parents are so named because they “hover” over their children’s every move and decision. Naturally, the inverse of the type ― a helicopter adult child ― exists, too.)
Experts we spoke to were divided on the subject.
Brent Bernard, a clinical counselor and the owner of Keep Moving Forward Counseling and Consulting in Dayton, Ohio, thinks that ― if handled sensitively and empathetically ― family conversations about retirement timing can be a good thing. As he’s seen with his own clients, the talk can help defuse any stress that the parent or the child may be bottling up.
“Having these frank and honest conversations about this with your loved one may help manage any stigmas or concerns about being a burden to adult children,” he said. “It may help shift the focus of worry to a more productive problem-solving perspective.”
“Keep the focus on serving them and partnering with them, not saving them.”
– Celia Roberts Hughes, a financial therapist based in Nashville, Tennessee
Still, your parent’s retirement ultimately isn’t your decision to make, which means the goal should be to listen, not persuade, Bernard said. You’re a collaborator or an adviser in this, not the one calling the shots.
“If your parent doesn’t feel heard in their worries and concerns, and think that your agenda is being ‘forced’ upon them, they’re likely to become defensive and more entrenched in their position rather than hearing a concerned family member’s thoughts that retirement may be in their best interest,” he said.
This is a sensitive topic because it shifts the power dynamic in a typical parent-child relationship. If you’re the still-working parent, it’s easy to get defensive when you’re put in a situation where it feels like your decision-making skills are being questioned, or like your sense of agency is slipping out of your hands.
Given how emotionally loaded the subject is, adult children would be wise to ask themselves “Why do I want my parents to retire?” before jumping in, said Celia Roberts Hughes, a financial therapist based in Nashville, Tennessee.
“Are you concerned about their safety or ability to maintain their integrity in their careers? Or is it possible that you’re projecting your own feelings onto them?” she said. “Is it possible that retiring is something that you look forward to, and so you can’t understand why they aren’t moving forward? Does their retirement benefit you in some way, perhaps helping with their grandchildren more?”
And while you may think you’re doing them a favor if you plan to volunteer to help them out financially, many parents are loath to be dependent on their children. What feels like a gift to you may not feel that way to them, Roberts Hughes said.
“Keep the focus on serving them and partnering with them, not saving them,” she said.
Boomers who are putting off retirement despite being financially secure may want to ask themselves some questions too, Roberts Hughes said.
“For boomers faced with this decision, it’s OK if retirement isn’t what you want right now, but I’d ask why?” she said. “How does your work serve you? What needs are being met?” (If you’re pondering questions like this, or are otherwise retirement-shy, Roberts Hughes said she highly recommends Barbara Pagano’s book “The 60-Something Crisis: How to Live an Extraordinary Life in Retirement.”)
Other people think conversations of this nature are best avoided ― or that at least, adult children shouldn’t be the ones to broach them.
“It’s generally not appropriate because, one, it should be the older adult’s decision, and two, the idea that at a certain point you’re supposed to stop working is inherently a bit ageist,” said Dr. Leslie Kernisan, a geriatrician and the author of “When Your Aging Parent Needs Help: A Geriatrician’s Step-by-Step Guide to Memory Loss, Resistance, Safety Worries, and More.”
Kernisan pointed out that some research suggests it’s actually healthy and stabilizing for older adults to continue work if they still can.
“And it’s good financially, of course,” she said, noting that many boomers “are not financially stable enough actually for retirement, and it keeps them engaged and purposeful.”
Kernisan brought up one exception where this conversation might be appropriate: If your parent is slipping cognitively, you may want to talk. Kernisan knows of a family who’s in this very situation right now.
“The mom, who I think is 72, has been working as a bookkeeper for a small business for 10 years, and she’s starting to make a lot of mistakes,” she said. “The owner of the business is concerned, and it’s awkward for them. They would love for the employee to decide to retire because they don’t like the idea of having to point out the mistakes that the older woman is making.”
Understand where the reluctance to retire is coming from
If you’re the child here, give some thought to why asking your parents to retire might be such a tall order, regardless of their financial circumstances.
“Boomers were raised in a social and cultural context where they were expected to commit to their career for the duration of their professional lifespan,” said Erin Mason, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles who specializes in life transitions.
As Gallup noted in a 2014 study of potential retirees, boomers’ “notoriously hard-charging work ethic and drive to get ahead” can “make it difficult to envision downshifting into the slower pace of retired life.”
“It can feel inconceivable to let go of something in which you’ve invested immense effort, emotion and energy,” Mason said. “Women in particular have had to exhibit relentless work ethic, fierce determination, and personal sacrifice to forge a professional path for themselves.”
Differentiating yourself from your career after a lifetime of work can be a huge challenge, she said.
“Your professional identity becomes inextricably intertwined with who and how you see yourself and your self-perceived value,” Mason said. “A successful career often provides people with the confidence that they belong in the world. Fulfilled by a sense of productivity and participation, they feel they’re able to contribute to society. They are relevant.”
Your parent’s work might connect them not only to their sense of purpose, but also to other people ― and “supportive social relationships are integral to healthy aging,” Mason said.
A few tips if you do have some version of “the talk”
While it might not be your place to push retirement on your parents, it could be appropriate for you to remind them of the social connections they still have or can still cultivate, Roberts Hughes said.
And if they’re afraid that they won’t feel like they have a purpose, “you can talk through some ways that they can continue to live a purposeful life, like through hobbies and volunteering,” she said.
If you do move forward with any form of retirement conversation, it’s important to start with connection and humanity.
“As an adult child, it is easy to forget that our parents are autonomous people living independent lives, and telling them what to do is likely going to backfire and create tension in the relationship,” Roberts Hughes said.
She offered some questions that you might want to lead off with:
- What do you love about working?
- What does it feel like when you think about retirement?
- Is there any part of retirement that feels scary or boring or unattractive to you?
- What do you love to do other than work?
“Ask open questions and be prepared to get to know them better,” Roberts Hughes said.
Maybe there are approaches they’ve overlooked that you could suggest, like downshifting, where you ease up on your hours on the job or take on less work or fewer projects. (That said, downshifting is considerably easier to do when you’re your own boss ― if your parent is not self-employed, they might want to read up on how to submit a downshifting proposal for their employer that could lead to a workable plan beneficial for both parties.)
However the conversation goes, remember: Our parents are entitled to agency over their lives and choices, even when we don’t consider those choices the wisest, said Marc Shulman, a psychologist and the founder and director of Long Island Psychology.
“We can be honest with our parents, and show love, support and acceptance even when they’re making choices we don’t understand or believe to be in their best interest,” he said.
If you’re an older adult on the receiving end of this conversation, it’s OK to be forthcoming and clear about boundaries, Shulman said.
“When you communicate clearly what role you’d like your children to play in
the next phase of your life, along with being open about what you’re willing to share and clear about what is ‘off the table,’ it makes difficult conversations productive and facilitative,” he said.
Remember that your children love you and have your best interests at heart, he said.
“Perhaps you’ll decide that partnering with your children to support you emotionally and practically in transitioning through retirement and the next stage of life might actually help you actualize your hopes and wishes for your twilight years,” he said. “It’s up to you.”