Brett Arends’s ROI: Unretirement has a new face — and it’s Tom Brady

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In case you hadn’t heard, it’s called “Unretirement” and it’s a thing.

And the latest poster child is NFL GOAT Tom Brady, who is back in the game after less than 6 weeks’ spent sitting on the sofa, flipping through the sports channels and asking Giselle what’s for lunch.

Unretirement is when you quit and then come back. MarketWatch columnist Chris Farrell even has a book out about it. Richard Eisenberg, also a MarketWatch columnist, is unretired and writes about that experience.

As Harvard healthcare policy professor Nicole Maestas has pointed out, some people retire full time and never go back, some people retire part time on their way to retiring full time, and some people retire and then unretired.

Read: Think you’re ready to retire? It’s not quite as simple as you might expect.

(“Golden boomerangs,” perhaps?)

It’s more common than you think: In 2007, Maestas estimated about 25% of retirees “unretired.” In many cases they planned to all along: They didn’t need retirement, they needed a break following “burnout.” Or, in other words, “feelings of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy” at work, caused by “workplace conflicts arising with respect to workload, control, rewards, community, fairness, or values.”

We can probably rule that out in Brady’s case. Last year he led the NFL in passing yards and in touchdown passes.

Some people come back because they find they don’t have enough money. We can probably rule that out in Brady’s case too. CelebrityNetWorth.com estimates he’s worth about $250 million, not counting wife Giselle Bundchen’s even greater fortune.

Out of curiosity I ran annuity numbers for Brady, a 44-year old male, using ImmediateAnnuities.com. The good news is that he could convert his fortune to a guaranteed lifetime income stream of $916,000 a month, though he’d probably have to find multiple insurers to handle the deal.

Brady is an exception, a standout in our Winner Takes It All economy. Most older workers, including those who want to Unretire, are going to face a grimmer reality. “Ageism,” which may be the last socially acceptable form of discrimination. They may want to stay in the workforce, or return to it, but not be able to find a job.

Read: We can end ageism if we can understand it first

Nobody knows how big age discrimination in the workplace really is, because it is theoretically against a law. But workers’ rights attorney Kristin Alden has the money quote on the subject: “Age discrimination,” she told the AARP, “is so pervasive that people don’t even recognize it’s illegal.” 

Last year there was a bump in over-65s coming back to work. But it’s over, according to the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research: The number of newly hired workers over 65, as a share of the over-65 U.S. population, has plummeted in recent months and is now lower than where it was 5 years ago. The rate among the 55-64s has also collapsed.

Read: Retired workers have gone back to work at an amazing pace

In other words, even if you want to come back you may not be able to—or at least not in the kind of job appropriate to your skills and experience. Very few companies will want their quarterbacks back as quarterbacks, though there may be job openings in locker room maintenance and latrine management.

Read: ‘What do we do with all that talent?’ Older workers and the new economy

Key takeaway: If you think it’s a bad move taking Social Security early, and it is, it’s even worse to start taking it early if you plan to unretire. Starting to claim Social Security at age 62 nearly halves the monthly check you’ll get if you hold out until 70 (when it tops out).

(If you’re in that boat, there are a couple of do-overs available that may be available.)

“Age discrimination is very real in some sectors,” Professor Maestas tells me. “But just as there are discriminatory employers there are also many nondiscriminatory employers and even employers who value older workers precisely because of their experience.”

She adds, “Given the underlying dynamics of population aging (not to mention the short-run dynamics of the pandemic), employers are increasingly likely to face labor shortages. I expect that will push them to offer better jobs and to make efforts to retain and recruit older workers.”

We can only hope.

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