Opinion: I asked several people well past retirement age why they keep working. Here’s what they told me

It’s no exaggeration to say that Dr. Howard Tucker has worked in medicine for a lifetime. The average life expectancy for men in the US is 73 years; Tucker has been a physician for 77. In July, he’ll turn 102.

Tucker, a neurologist who started practicing medicine in 1947, teaches medical students in Ohio. The Guiness Book of World Records has recognized him as the “Oldest Practicing Doctor.

Tucker is also a notable example of a growing phenomenon: Americans eschewing retirement and working later in life. That includes the two men — President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump — vying for another shot at what has been called the hardest job in the world.

Some critics have suggested that neither Biden nor Trump, given their advanced age, are fully up to the rigors of another turn in the presidency. Their supporters say such statements are unfair and ageist while Biden and Trump themselves have brushed their detractors aside.

Biden, 81, has been leaning more into his age recently, making light of his advanced years — even as aides have encouraged him to be out in public more to show that he can still carry out the duties of the presidency ably. Trump, 77, has sidestepped the age issue for the most part, although he has pointedly dismissed detractors who imply that he is experiencing cognitive decline. He once even famously posted online that life begins at 80.

The question for some of us is, why some people want to keep working decades beyond retirement age? CNN Opinion editor Stephanie Griffith asked seven people who are past the conventional retirement age why they are still at the job and got as many responses as there were respondents. Some keep working to make ends meet; others, because they love what they do and can’t imagine giving it up. And some insist that they are better than ever at their chosen professions and love leaning into their growing sense of competence. They continue to work happily and productively, and were happy to explain to us how and why they do it.

Howard Tucker, neurologist, 101

The key to longevity: Perseverence and fostering a love of learning

Studies have shown that keeping one’s brain stimulated may prevent many age-related cognitive impairments. I keep my brain stimulated by working, though for those who have retired or plan on retiring, a mentally stimulating hobby might be a suitable alternative. It is critical to know yourself and understand your limits and capabilities, but I firmly believe that retirement is the enemy of longevity.

Dr. Howard Tucker lecturing medical residents at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center in Cleveland during the pandemic. - Courtesy Austin Tucker
Dr. Howard Tucker lecturing medical residents at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center in Cleveland during the pandemic. - Courtesy Austin Tucker

With people continuing to live longer, it may soon be commonplace to see individuals working into their 80s, 90s and, in some cases, past 100, like me. I now spend my time teaching medical and law students at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and I prioritize staying current with the latest trends in neurology, my area of specialization.

Having started practicing long before CT and MRI, I am extremely fortunate to have witnessed many technological advancements in my field. Over the years I’ve had to adapt frequently to the changing technology, which isn’t always easy for someone my age. Many physicians I’ve known simply retired because they did not want to learn how to use computers. But I believe that perseverance and a desire to continue to learn is a must in one’s later years.

Howard Tucker shows off his Guiness World Record certificate designating him the "oldest practicing doctor." - Courtesy Dr. Howard Tucker
Howard Tucker shows off his Guiness World Record certificate designating him the "oldest practicing doctor." - Courtesy Dr. Howard Tucker

While technology has made a tremendous impact on the practice of medicine, I still urge my medical students to listen to patients, take an adequate history and look at the patient while questioning him/her. Then, I would have them look at the imaging studies.

I believe I am wiser now, in the sense I am less judgmental and more patient with my medical residents and students who have forgotten how to take a thorough patient history, the most important part of the examination.

Howard Tucker - Courtesy Austin Tucker
Howard Tucker - Courtesy Austin Tucker

Of course, I’ve had to make adjustments over the years. Pacing is important. It feels like only yesterday that I would be going on rounds seeing patients in the hospital at 5:00 a.m. Now with my 102nd birthday less than two months away, I find myself sleeping in. But I wake up at 8:30 am, ready to tackle the day ahead of me.

In addition to teaching residents at Case Western Reserve University, Howard Tucker taught for many decades at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center, which closed in November 2022. A documentary film about Tucker’s life, “What’s Next?” created by Taylor Taglianetti and his grandson Austin Tucker, was released in April.

Gayle Fleming, yoga instructor, 76

‘I won’t ever give in to age’

In a world where youth is glorified beyond all reason and old age is treated like a disease, I proudly celebrated turning 76 in February. On my birthday, I taught an overflow yoga class where most of the students ranged between 20 and 40 years younger than me.

Yes, I teach to earn my keep, but also because I love what I do. That may be the secret of working well past the time society tells us we’re supposed to retire.

It helps that being a yoga instructor is a line of work that keeps me physically agile and mentally sharp. When I turned 50, I started the practice each birthday of doing the same number of Sun Salutations — a complicated series of yoga poses that require both strength and flexibility — that corresponded to my age. I continue that tradition more than a quarter-century later.

In many non-western countries old people are revered and are considered the holders of wisdom. In the US, it’s just the opposite. I am saddened when I hear people speak dismissively about their elders, but I’m always appalled at how readily old people perpetuate ageism against themselves. And it’s especially disappointing to hear people attributing verbal mistakes made by the president — a man who overcame a severe stuttering problem by sheer will — to his age.

Gayle Fleming - Michael Ventura
Gayle Fleming - Michael Ventura

In my view, memory issues are endemic in all age groups more than ever because of information overload. Most people who have a temporary memory lapse are not unlucky enough to have it on a national or world stage. Given the enormous amount of information that filters through my own brain on a daily basis, I can only imagine what the leader of the free world must endure daily.

My advice to older people — and this includes President Biden — is that they should simply refuse to be defined by their age. That’s how I have proceeded in my eighth decade of life, and I don’t intend to stop. I didn’t succumb to age last summer while hiking eight to 10 miles a day with a bunch of 20-somethings. I refuse to be defeated by age when plowing through the 30 to 50 books I read each year.

I think most people know when they need to slow down and take a step back. I don’t want to race around at the pace I did when I was a realtor for many years. I am still busy all the time though, doing the things I want to do. And I know real estate agents in their 70s and 80s who are still working full time, having had to adapt to myriad technological changes.

I won’t ever give in to age as I teach the 2,500 year old practice of yoga. I know only too well the incalculable value for my students — who range from elementary school age to people my own vintage and older — of the breadth and depth of the accumulated knowledge and wisdom I have to share.

Gayle Fleming is a yoga instructor and retired real estate agent

Charles Simon, artificial intellligence researcher, 70

With more advanced age, wisdom to see solutions in an expansive context

I work in the field of artificial intelligence and there’s a lot I bring to my line of work that I might not have as a younger person. I have a broader view — some would call it wisdom — to see solutions to problems in a more expansive context. I can truly “think outside the box” and not feel constrained by the current AI orthodoxy which I see as limiting — partly because companies need to show immediate profits.

I could have quit working years ago, but I continue to work into my 70s to pursue revolutionary ideas and contribute to the scientific community and society as a whole. And my adequate retirement income allows me to tackle intriguing problems in my field with no anticipation of near-term compensation.

Charles Simon - Courtesy Future AI Society
Charles Simon - Courtesy Future AI Society

For example, since today’s AI has superhuman abilities in many areas, it cannot solve many of the problems which are within the skill set of any three-year-old. I contend that we will never create true adult-level machine intelligence without first creating child-level abilities since there is little commercial value in the abilities of young children. But it may take time to achieve. The patience of my age is a huge advantage.

To me, AI is the most exciting project on the planet. Why would I stop working?

Another thing that inspires me is collaborating and communicating with others who share my goals and passions. Recently, I founded a group, the Future AI Society, bringing researchers together to add common sense to the field of artificial intelligence to make interactions between people and computers easier and more useful and to shed light on how the human mind works — how our brains allow us to have the thoughts and feelings we do.

The Future AI Society builds on my life’s work experience in the beginnings of the Computer Aided Design industry, making groundbreaking EEG Systems (brainwave monitoring) and innovative news communications at MSNBC. I see the Society as a project which will continue to hold my interest as long as I have the mental and physical abilities to pursue it.

On a personal level, there’s a lot of satisfaction in continuing to work. The downside of working into your later years is that our bodies degrade as we age. Building a business such as the Society has the huge advantage of not having a rigid, fixed schedule. I can take time off for trips, time with family and other pursuits. Fulfillment comes from contributing to something larger than oneself, at any age!

Charles Simon is an artificial intelligence developer, researcher and entrepreneur who splits his time between Seattle, Washington and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Ana Marie Forsythe, teacher, Ailey School, 80

A modern dance evangelist passing her knowledge to the next generation

I used to teach 12 dance classes a week. Now I teach four, and that reduction in schedule has made it possible for me to be just as energetic as I was when I was doing 12 classes. I have beginning, intermediate and advanced classes. So, I get the full range of levels. And I can watch my students grow and can kind of pull them through that thread of all the stages of how to become a dancer.

Ana Marie Forsythe - Kyle Froman/Dance Media Publications
Ana Marie Forsythe - Kyle Froman/Dance Media Publications

I started out as a ballet dancer. Because our teacher knew that we all were not going to be ballet dancers and get into companies, we were encouraged to learn modern dance. Our ballet teacher invited then this wonderful woman — Joyce Trisler — to teach us modern dance. And Joyce was phenomenal. She’d just come from the West Coast and was a student at Juilliard, and came with this new information about dance because we have never heard of Lester Horton Technique in the east.

Horton is the style of modern dance that I still teach at the Ailey School, and it is the foundation for dancers at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. What came next for me was a lifelong of teaching at the Ailey School and other dance studios as well. I taught at Vassar College and a lot of other universities, so I’ve been around.

How long will I keep teaching? I think as long as I continue to remember all these crazy counts that Lester Horton created — and as long as the students seem responsive and are learning and growing. I’m willing to continue to go forward until I think I’ve done enough and I’m tired of doing it. But I am never tired when I get into the dance studio. I’m rip-roaring ready to go. I know I have things that I can teach these young dancers that they wouldn’t get in another place. And I love seeing my students grow and change.

What also keeps me going is sharing this important American modern dance technique that I learned as a young dancer, that I think is still so relevant today, not only just because of the Ailey company, which tours internationally and is so successful.

Ana Marie Forsythe - Kyle Froman/The Ailey School
Ana Marie Forsythe - Kyle Froman/The Ailey School

Martha Graham had the contraction and release. José Limón had the rise and fall and other modern choreographers had other ways of instilling dance. But Horton had a very specific idea. He wanted to see how many different ways the body can move. When you see Ailey’s masterpiece “Revelations,” you see it’s full of Horton technique.

Can I still demonstrate the movements myself? I can still get out there and demonstrate the easy stuff. But I’m better at using my words than I used to. I feel as if teaching keeps the body supple but keeps the mind supple as well. I still think that I have information to share with these young dancers that maybe some of the younger teachers don’t have.

There’s something very special about having a historical basis for your teaching. That’s why I co-authored the book about Horton along with Marjorie Perces and Cheryl Bell. We got together for many, many weeks in the public library sitting on the floor, trying to write down the technique because we were concerned that the nuances, the studies, the counts would be lost if someone didn’t finally write them down. I also made six DVDs with a dear friend of mine, Babette Coffey-Fisch, to preserve the technique.

So, I have knowledge to pass down. I think that happens when you’ve taught a long time and you’re really involved in the technique. You know how to explain things to students. And it’s wonderful to see the students that have come out of the school who have joined the company and who are now doing those movements really well. And when they don’t, sometimes I sneak in a correction.

Ana Marie Forsythe has taught modern dance for more than 50 years at the Ailey School in New York City, where she is the chair of the Horton Department.

David A. Andelman, foreign correspondent, 79

I’ve put away my ‘go bag,’ but I’m still a foreign correspondent at heart

At my peak of activity as a foreign correspondent — first with The New York Times, later with CBS News — I had a “go bag” next to my bed for the times that a middle-of-the-night call from an editor would dispatch me to cover a revolution or an explosion in some far flung corner of the world.

Do I miss the adrenaline rush that propelled me across 90-plus countries and into untold crises? Sure. But that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped traveling. I still do — a lot. Now my voyages and my writing can be just a trifle more reflective, more incisive perhaps. I can stop to smell the roses and consider why they are growing, or dying. I can write more books, turn more pages, visit more offbeat corners, but also draw on my training as an historian to put it all into a more profound perspective.

I’ll be 80 in October and not a day goes by when I don’t write. It is as much a part of my being as the breathing I still manage, without a trifle more difficulty, through my asthmatic lungs. It is so deeply gratifying to do something that you truly love.

David A. Andelman - Pamela S. Title
David A. Andelman - Pamela S. Title

Far be it from me to lecture either President Joe Biden or former President Donald Trump on the perils and opportunities of old age, at least by the calendar. But perhaps those passing judgment might reflect on my experiences.

I love the reach I get writing as a freelancer and the no-holds-barred freedom of my Substack newsletter. And of course, I love in my post correspondent life that I get to spend more time with my family, who both encourage and inspire me. I’m 900 pages into a memoir — “Don’t Shoot, I’m an American Reporter.”

There are just so many ways of growing old. Aging gracefully and productively is what I still strive at every moment to achieve.

David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN, twice winner of the Deadline Club Award, is a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor and author of “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen.” He blogs at Substack’s Andelman Unleashed.

Maggie Mulqueen, psychotherapist, 68

Not going gracefully into the ‘good night’

On my 15th birthday, my father gave me a dozen red roses with a condolence card that read, “Welcome to being halfway over the hill.” I am from the generation that believed people over 30 were not to be trusted. Ironically, that same generation has been redefining for decades the concept of youth (Think “50 is the new 40. Or 60 is middle age.”) We have not gone gracefully into the good night.

When I started my private practice as a psychologist, I was younger than more than half my patients; now I am older than all but a few. Although my training included developmental theory, it is one thing to have book knowledge and another to have lived knowledge.

Psychologist Maggie Mulqueen at the home office where she sees her patients. - Courtesy Alan Steele
Psychologist Maggie Mulqueen at the home office where she sees her patients. - Courtesy Alan Steele

The benefit of my work is that for years I have been privileged to hear the inner workings of how those older than me have dealt with the onset of aging and the conundrums associated with retirement. In a society where the first question asked when meeting someone new is “What do you do?” stepping out of work can feel like going over a cliff into the great unknown.

Since I have my own business, when the time comes to slow down, I know that I am in the enviable position of being able to scale back my hours without losing prestige or power, the two components that seem hardest for my clients to surrender with retirement. In addition, when work has commanded 50-plus hours a week for decades, often there is not much of a soft landing to be found in their nonwork lives. The rule of thumb I suggest for my patients is to treat the first year of retirement as a sabbatical. It is a time for exploration and rest, out of which will hopefully come the scaffolding for creating a meaningful and joyful next chapter.

As I approach 70, I continue to find satisfaction in my work life and plan to continue working as long as I am able to provide quality care to my patients. Since I treat people across a wide age span, I am constantly learning about trends and pressures felt by other generations.

No one seems to worry anymore that being 30 is over the hill, especially as the fight has shifted to concern about people in their 80s having leadership roles. But I remain grateful for the gift my father gave me: the insight that just as age is only a number, and that I am more than just my age.

Maggie Mulqueen, PhD, a psychologist in Brookline, Mass., is the author of “On Our Own Terms: Redefining Competence and Femininity.” More of her writing can be found at drmaggiemulqueen.com.

Joan Steinau Lester, book author, 83

“Knowing when to listen to the young.”

At 83, I’m two years older than President Joe Biden and like him, I’m still working. If I were a basketball player I would have retired long ago, but for writers or politicians, age can be an asset.

Five decades of writing have honed my craft and I know my way around my trade, publishing essays and books all these years. I no longer run or jump, ending even the backyard basketball I used to play with my grandson. But physical limits don’t impact my intellect. Socially I may forget the occasional noun, yet that rarely occurs when I write. A cognitive mystery!

Author Joan Steinau Lester writing in her home office. - Courtesy Carole Johnson
Author Joan Steinau Lester writing in her home office. - Courtesy Carole Johnson

With few distractions now — no longer raising children and no longer needing a “regular job” thanks to the wonders of Social Security, freelance income and a working spouse — I’m able to fully focus and write as long as my body can sit. It tires well before my mind, until I burst outside to stretch.

We octogenarians know how to pace ourselves. Unlike my heedless young self, I retire and rise early, hiking among redwood trees before I settle down to work. I’ve never felt so sharp and bright or had this depth of understanding.

I believe life’s blows, common after long lives, have battered much of the confusion out of me. Anxieties I used to suffer — ego, longing, anger and regrets — have subsided. I’m clear about my purpose: writing is what I was born to do. After all these years I have much to say. Why would I stop?

It’s amazing when at the peak of my proficiency I’m discounted for the single characteristic of age. A young bank teller recently simpered, “How are you today, dear? What did you do this morning?”

“Write,” I answered as politely as possible, given my eagerness to move on. “Oh, how sweet,” she chirped. “It gives you something to fill your day.”

“Fill my day”? Well, yes. Writing an opinion piece for an international platform. “Sweet,” indeed. But not in the dismissive way she meant.

President Biden suffers similar disrespect. No matter how many legislative miracles he pulls off, he struggles to escape the bumbling-old-man image. The age stereotype, with its assumption of inferiority, is as insidious as any other. Octogenarians who work from desire or need should be judged by our production, not our gray hair or the years we’ve combated gravity.

The power of vast experience more than compensates for any physical sag or stumble. There is a reason traditional societies trust elders to make their consequential decisions. The irreplaceable wisdom of age is a national treasure. Let’s not waste it.

That said, one of our talents is knowing when to listen to the young. With their moral clarity and urgency unmuddied by life’s compromises, they often point the way, as now, toward necessary policy pivots. We’ve seen over many decades how their outrage becomes the leading edge of future popular opinion.

Joan Steinau Lester is the author of six books, including “Loving Before Loving: A Marriage in Black and White.

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