Personality Influences Path to Retirement

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Only about a third of the older people who are working full-time will go straight into retirement. Most take zigzag paths.

These paths include gradually reducing their hours, occasional consulting, or finding a new job or an Uber stint that is only part-time. Other people “unretire,” meaning that they retire temporarily from a full-time job only to decide to return to work for a while.

A new study finds that the paths older workers choose are influenced by their personality and by how well they’re able to hold the line against the natural cognitive decline that accompanies aging.

Researchers at RAND in the United States and a think tank in The Netherlands uncovered interesting connections between retirement and cognitive acuity and, separately, and a variety of personality traits. To do this, they followed older Americans’ work and retirement decisions over 14 years through a survey, which also administered a personality and a cognition test.

Here’s what they found:

  • Cognitive ability.  The people in the study who had higher levels of what’s known as fluid cognitive function – the ability to recall things, learn fast, and think on one’s feet – are much more likely to follow the paths of either working full-time or part-time past age 70.

    The probable reason is simply that more job options are available to people with higher cognitive ability – whether fluidity or sheer intelligence – so they have an easier time remaining in the labor force even though they’re getting older.
  • Extroversion. Extroverts, who naturally seek out other people and situations outside of themselves, tend to continue doing some type of work after 65. Even after 70, this group is the most likely to still be working full-time.  Extroversion also pulls some older people out of retirement.
  • Conscientiousness. People with this personality trait often work full-time past age 62, but it has less of an effect after 65. Perhaps the reason this influence lessens over time is that conscientious people are better prepared financially to retire, according to one study.
  • Agreeableness. People who are amenable and get along with their coworkers are more likely to want to keep working after 65.
  • Neuroticism and openness to new experiences. These have little to do with retirement decisions, the researchers found.

While you’re looking at your finances, it would also be smart to look beyond money and ask yourself what else might weigh into whether or not you’re ready to retire.

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I thought I had halfway decent cognitive ability – a computer scientist with a masters degree; and somewhat extroverted – goes inline with running successfully for public office and being elected vice mayor, then mayor of my city; and consciousness – at least partially in that I was better prepared financially to retire (according to the one study).
But, hitting our financial “number” was key to us retiring early when we did. At the same time, we understood early on that – even aside from retirement – there has to be a life outside of work. But the financials are critical to getting there.
We’re busy all day long with our favorite activities and vices, volunteering, time with our grandchildren, exercise, gardening, reading, time with family and friends (old and new), time to do anything we want, whenever we want…or not.

Paul Brustowicz

When my wife retired at 63, she wasn’t home six months before she had a “mindless” part-time job in a medical office. She needed the social action and camaraderie. Within a year she had another part-time gig, again in a medical setting of a free clinic.

She is one of those conscientious people who goes above and beyond. When it started affecting her health as did her original full-time job, she had no choice but to retire.

I, on the other hand, called it quits to do some writing and volunteering. We did not need the money since finances were good despite my planning.


Presumably, the disagreeable types get fired.


No mention of the effect on retirement decisions of working for a disagreeable employer, either. Corporations are widely known to be making fewer people do more work, and expecting employees to be on call even when they’re away from the office or on vacation.

Jeff Y.

Several years ago, in my late 60’s, a friend invited me on a fishing trip. I told him I was working and would not be able to go. He said, “you’ve got enough money.” Without thinking, I replied, “I quit working for money years ago.” To be able to mentor others, to still contribute, to master something and be of value. Sort of mitigates the dumb things you did earlier in life.

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