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When Robert Blethen got the call last fall from a small trucking company in Connecticut to deliver a few horses from Oklahoma to Maine, the 70-year-old retiree hadn’t really been thinking about returning to the workaday world. He took the gig anyway and quickly discovered the workplace had shifted dramatically since he last hit the road.

“I was kind of bored, and the company was short of help,” he tells the Washington Post. “Plus, I’m being compensated very well.”

Blethen is part of a vast wave of retirees returning to the workforce — some 1.5 million in the past year — in response to one of the tightest labor markets in decades. With twice as many job openings as candidates, desperate companies are offering higher pay, more flexibility, and the kind of job security seniors could only dream of in the pre-pandemic world.

“This is the first time I’ve seen retirees become a targeted population,” notes Amanda Cage, president of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions. “It’s very different from what we saw in the last recession, when older workers faced extreme discrimination in the labor market in a way that they never quite recovered from.”

Along with this newfound sense of workplace value, these un-retirees may also accrue some surprising neurological benefits. The results of a study published last month in JAMA suggest that older workers who feel secure in their jobs are less likely than their less confident peers to see their memory skills erode as they age.

Lindsay Kobayashi, PhD, and her research team reviewed data collected from 9,538 older adults (average age of 61) between 2006 and 2016 by the U.S. Health and Retirement Study and the English Longitudinal Study of Aging. And, just as a late-life perception of job insecurity has been shown to raise the risk of heart disease and depression, it can also exact a toll on the aging brain.

“Although the associations with job insecurity appear to be strong for nonfatal myocardial infarction, depressive symptoms, and hypertension, we observed a modest association between perceived job insecurity and memory function,” Kobayashi writes, adding that it may hasten cognitive dysfunction by about a year on average.

It’s all about stress, of course, and not surprisingly the U.S. workers in the study exhibited higher levels of C-reactive protein — a biological marker of stress — than their English counterparts who benefited from a more generous healthcare and income-maintenance system. Both cohorts suffered some memory loss as a result of their job insecurity; the English participants just performed a bit better than the Americans on the memory tests.

I suspect Blethen and the thousands of other seniors who have recently unretired aren’t worried as much about their memory skills as they are about making ends meet at a time when galloping inflation is crushing grocery budgets and a drooping stock market is eviscerating retirement funds.

It was her monthly health-insurance premium that sent Roblyn Melton back into the workforce. The retired educator, 58, tells the Post she’s going to work until she’s eligible for Medicare. “But I did pick a job that I enjoyed doing,” she adds, “so it’s not like I went back to do something I hate.”

I feel even more fortunate than Melton. Fifteen years into my current gig and meandering into my eighth decade, I’m hoping to work as long as my colleagues will put up with me. The commute is painless, the hours flexible, the compensation generous, and the work enjoyable. Besides, I have to say I can’t recall ever really worrying about losing my job. If Kobayashi’s research is to be trusted, though, I suppose that could simply mean I was feeling so insecure at various points that my memory completely fails me.

Craig Cox
Craig Cox

Craig Cox is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of healthy aging.

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