Faced with a retirement plan that could use a shot of mojo, you may be eyeing an increasingly popular hack: Work longer. Nearly seven in 10 workers surveyed by the Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI) say they expect to keep working in retirement.

Maybe you’ve run your numbers through a retirement income calculator and see you’re coming up short. Perhaps you foresee mortgage and college loan payments well into your 60s. Or a relative’s 90th birthday party has driven home the fact that you may be genetically predisposed to a long life.

That’s okay, you tell yourself. Just. Work. Longer. Based on current longevity estimates, even if you work until 70 you could have another 20 years or more of full-on retirement.

But this game plan is anything but a slam dunk. Working longer has a degree of difficulty more akin to a step-back three pointer when you’re not Steph Curry. Those seven in 10 who intend to keep working? In the same EBRI survey barely one in five current retirees reports any post-retirement income from a job.

The case for extending your career

The argument for working as long as you can is compelling. Not only does it give you more time to save money, but not tapping retirement funds in your 60s is one of the most effective ways to help a later-life you. Waiting to take Social Security until age 70 means a payout that is more than 75% higher than what you’d get if you claim at 62.

Staying employed is good for your health, and it plays an important social role that can slow down the creep of cognitive decline.

Academia provides even more fodder. The recently published paper “The Power of Working Longer” laid out the financial payoff of staying on the job past 65: Delaying retirement for just three to six months had the same impact as managing to save one percentage point more a year over a 30-year work span.

Other studies reveal that staying employed is good for your health, and it plays an important social role that can slow down the creep of cognitive decline.

“Working longer is both an opportunity and a challenge,” says Steve Vernon, a consulting research scholar at the Stanford Center on Longevity. Vernon co-authored a 2017 study that found that delaying retirement from age 65 to age 70 could boost a retiree’s eventual income by 25% to 34%.

A long career, however, won’t just magically happen.

“This isn’t easy for individuals. It isn’t going to be easy for employers,” says Vernon, whose new book, Retirement Game-Changers, is stuffed with practical advice on how to navigate the world of 21st Century retirement.

The challenges to staying on the job

In the EBRI survey, health problems, disability, and layoffs were the most common reason retirees reported for stopping work earlier than expected.

Even if you dodge the health gauntlet, your office can be tough terrain. Take a mental tour right now: How many 70-year-olds are there? How many 65+ managers?  Ageism can be a tough nut to crack when you’re reporting to someone half your age. 

And when the gale force of cost cutting hits in the next recession you may be especially vulnerable. In a report entitled “Why Employers Should Care About The Costs of Delayed Retirements,” Prudential Financial points out that a one-year delay in retirement can cost an employer $50,000. That’s the estimated annual difference between the the older worker’s salary and the lower amount the employer could pay a younger replacement.

“Working longer can be a great solution, but you really need to bring your A game,” says Catherine Collinson, CEO and president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies (TCRS).

A one-year delay in retirement by an older worker can cost an employer $50,000.

Many boomers are falling short of that. In the 2018 TCRS annual retirement survey, just six in 10 baby boomers self-reported that they are performing well at their current job. Six in 10 admitted they haven’t kept their job skills up to date. Less than 5% have gone back to school or learned new skills. Only 14% are actively summoning their inner extrovert and networking.

“Given what’s at stake,” says Collinson, “those response rates were strikingly low.”

How to set yourself up for a long career

Up your game. Collinson says she often hears from older employees that they are too busy to attend workplace training programs. “Not only do you show up,” she says. “You write a note to your supervisor and HR, telling them how much you appreciated the training and how much you learned.”

No in-house training? EdX, Udemy, and Lynda.com from LinkedIn offer online courses in a wide variety of topics. (Some free, some not.) Or you check out classes at a local community college.

Let your supervisor know what you’re up to, says Collinson, and ask for financial assistance or a flexible schedule if needed. If nothing else, you are making it clear you are serious about shining. If those polished skills don’t help you stay where you’re at, they can put you in a stronger position to land another gig.

Shape up. Health is the No. 1 reason retirees report having to stop work earlier than expected. Nearly seven in 10 boomers in the TCRS survey say they are taking steps to stay healthy. Yet when asked what healthy habits that consistently practice, fewer reported eating healthy, exercising regularly, and getting plenty of rest.

Craft your late-career job. The work that you’ll do, say, 10 years from now may not be what you’re doing today. Step back and assess what projects and tasks you most enjoy. Think through the environment you want to be in for the long haul.

Maybe it’s time to switch into a less stressful and demanding role that you can keep up longer. If you want to stay with your employer but work in a different capacity, you need to come up with a proposal for what that would look like and how it will serve your employer’s business and bottom line.

It’s also time to turn on your radar for new opportunities. Maybe the vendor or client you work with has a good fit for you, or a lead.

That’s how Vernon, 59, landed his current gig at Stanford’s Center on Longevity. He was a consultant at Mercer and Stanford was a client. “I heard about this job and said, hey, I’d like to do that.”

Think through the environment you want to be in for the long haul. Maybe it’s time to switch into a less demanding role you can keep up longer.

Be prepared to earn less. A smart work-later strategy is to save enough early so that in your 60s you only need to bring in what’s needed to pay your expenses. Once you hit age 50, you can save even more for retirement, up to $24,500 this year in a 401(k) and $6,500 in an individual retirement plan.

In your power saving years, a health savings account (HSA) can serve as a valuable stealth retirement savings plan. With a high deductible health insurance plan (a deductible of at least $2,700 for family coverage, or $1,350 for individual coverage, in 2018), households can put up to $6,900 in an HSA, and individuals can contribute $3,450.

If you’re at least 55 you can contribute another $1,000 a year. You fund an HSA with pre-tax money, and withdrawals to pay for medical expenses are tax-free.

Talk to successful elders. Seek out people in their 60s and 70s who have pulled off working longer. If there are none in your orbit, this is where networking can be low stress. You’re not fishing for a job, just asking friends of friends and colleagues to share some nuggets on how they managed to work longer.

You will likely hear a common message, Collinson says. “Being a highly valued, exceptional contributor in your 50s and early 60s puts you in a much better position to negotiate your retirement than someone who just shows up and gets the job done.”