'Grammy Pry' shows how gig work for seniors is remaking American retirement

At 90 years old, Barbara Pry is deep into her retirement — and she’s still working. The New Jersey grandmother does four shifts a week at her church in Ringwood, New Jersey, where she serves as the congregation’s secretary. Her wage only comes out to about $11 per hour, but Pry — known to her grandchildren as “Grammy” — says that’s not what she’s there for.

“Money isn’t the reason that you do this,” she said. “It keeps me busy and active, it’s interesting, it’s close to home … And I just like it. It’s fun.”

Pry is far from alone. A growing number of older Americans are working part-time, freelance or contract jobs — even during retirement. Twenty-six percent of U.S. adults aged 50 and older are gig workers, according to a recent study by AARP, the national advocacy group for senior citizens. Among workers aged 45 and older, that number shot up from 16% in 2018 to 26% in 2023.

“I think this is a growing trend,” said Carly Roszkowski, the vice president of AARP’s financial resilience programming. “More and more, we are seeing … the need or the desire to work in retirement. And gig work really allows for people to do that.”

The number of older Americans working gigs has been rising for many years. From 2005 to 2017, the share of independent contractors aged 55 to 64 grew from 18.8% to 22.9%, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. In that same period, the share of those aged 65 and older with side hustles rose from 8.5% to 14.1%.

Gigs take many forms. In 2023, AARP found that 7% of freelancing seniors were teaching, 5% were shopping for others, 5% were making home repairs, 4% were doing house cleaning, 4% were making deliveries and 4% were providing pet care, among other services.

The respondents said they took on the jobs for a number of reasons. The vast majority — 89% — told AARP their motive was “to make extra money.” But the relative freedom of gig work was also a major draw: Some 87% said they liked the flexible hours, and another 79% agreed with the statement, “I’m my own boss.”

“It provides not only the flexibility, but that work-life balance — that idea of setting your own terms and being able to dictate how much and how often you want to work,” Roszkowski said.

Whether it’s a part-time gig or full-time job, Americans are working longer than they used to. A study by the polling company Gallup found that from 1991 to 2022, the average U.S. retirement age rose from 57 to 61.

Even in retirement, many Americans keep working part-time. According to an AARP survey last July, 8% of Americans aged 50 and older were already “retired and working.” And among retirees who were not working, one in four expected that they would have to go back to work in the future to make ends meet.

All of this has added up to an increasingly blurred line between work and retirement.

“Retirement is no longer synonymous with ceasing to work,” AARP said in its July study. “In fact, many people feel that leaving the workforce isn’t financially feasible.”

In today’s economy, that’s understandable. For more than a year, seniors have seen their savings devalued by inflation and their retirement plans pummeled by the bear market. By the end of 2022, the S&P 500 was down 19.4%, its worst yearly performance since 2008. And last June, the consumer price index rose year-on-year by 9.1%, a rate not seen since the early 1980s.

But there are also positive reasons to keep working. Many financial advisors say a gradual transition out of one’s working years can make for a healthier, happier retirement.

“I highly recommend that all retirees find some form of work — freelance, volunteer or otherwise,” said Kyle Simmons, the founder of Simmons Investment Management in Broomfield, Colorado. “Oftentimes, the switch from full-time employment to retirement can be quite difficult to go through, and part-time work can help tremendously with that.”

Brandon Gregg, the market president of BBK Wealth Management in Lafayette, Indiana, said part-time work keeps his clients mentally and socially stimulated.

“I don’t have the scientific data, but I’ve been told by several clients that keeping busy and working helps them keep their mind sharp and the activity keeps their bodies healthy,” Gregg said.

Meanwhile, the extra income can do more than just cover expenses.

“From a financial planning perspective, planning to work part-time after retirement can be a great thing,” said Lindsey Young, the founder of Quiet Wealth in Baltimore, Maryland. “Even a relatively small amount of planned earnings after retirement from full-time work can open up a number of life possibilities, from taking additional vacations [to] buying a second home or retiring even earlier.”

Grammy Pry can attest to many of these benefits. She enjoys the mental challenge of writing her church newsletter, stays social by talking to congregants and says she learns something new every day at work. When asked whether she’d ever “re-retire,” she thought hard about the question.

“Probably when I can’t walk or can’t drive,” she said with a laugh. “I take it a day at a time. Every day is a gift at this point in my life.”