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For many high-octane professionals, retirement is not an option

Ex-Tufts Health Plan CEO and attorney Jim Roosevelt attended a meeting at the Massachusetts Medical Society.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Jim Roosevelt stepped down as Tufts Health Plan's chief executive when he was 70, about five years beyond what people used to think of as the traditional retirement age. Two-and-a-half years later, his schedule looks nothing like that of an easygoing retiree.

Roosevelt, now 72, has resumed practicing law, as a health care attorney for Verrill Dana.

He consults for Tufts on strategy and public affairs.

And he volunteers for the state and national Democratic parties.

All told, he logs 40-hour weeks — a breeze in comparison with the 80 that he regularly clocked during his CEO days.

Roosevelt says his wife, Ann, who works 30 hours a week as a volunteer for environmental groups and as president of the Cambridge Water Board, did the math. "She said, 'You're a quarter-time with Tufts, a third with the law firm, and the rest with the Democrats, so you're back to 100 percent,' " he recounted. "I said, 'Yeah, but before it was 200 percent.' "

For many high-octane professionals like Roosevelt, retirement is a dirty word. While their hair may be thinning and they're carving out time for one or more of the three Gs — golf, gardening, and grandchildren — they're aiming to downshift rather than to hit the brakes, continuing to work, but at a somewhat less feverish pace. Losing the professional identity that they spent a lifetime creating is unimaginable.


Among those still going full tilt into their late 60s or 70s, there are jokes about "flunking retirement." Consultants who advise captains of commerce and academia on retirement say some give little thought to what they'll do on the morning after — so they keep working.

"You can only play so much golf," said John Wood, 64, vice chairman at the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles in New York, who has no plans to retire anytime soon. Some companies hire him to recruit candidates in their 60s who have had successful careers and can step into executive roles during crucial transition periods.


Gloria Larson, 68, who will step down in June as Bentley University's president, already has lined up her next act. In late August, she'll become president in residence at Harvard Graduate Education, helping to mentor master's degree candidates. Larson will continue to lead the Massachusetts Conference for Women and sit on the boards of several companies and charities.

"We're the Peter Pan generation," Larson said, referring to the boy in Sir James Barrie's play who doesn't grow older. "It's anathema to say the word 'retirement' to baby boomers."

Bill Lee, 68, a partner at WilmerHale in Boston, skirted his law firm's mandatory retirement age of 65 when its management committee granted him a waiver. Lee also teaches at Harvard Law School and serves as senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, one of the university's governing boards, where he recently led the school's search for a new president. Last month, he was in California consulting with Apple Inc., which he represents in its long-running patent litigation with Samsung.

"When I walk into the office in the morning, people say, 'How are things?' " Lee said. "I say, 'Great. I'm past mandatory retirement age, and they haven't locked the doors.' "

Many of those ignoring retirement aren't simply workaholics. While financial firms often decorate their ads for retirement services with idyllic images of sailing or strolling on the beach, "retirement is actually one of the most stressful times in a person's life," said Roger Ingwersen, the founder of Harvest Group, a wealth management firm in Waltham. "You're going into uncharted territory."


Sixty-five became America's unofficial retirement age in 1935, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — Jim Roosevelt's grandfather, as it happens — signed the Social Security Act, which set it as the minimum age for receiving full retirement benefits. But with improvements in medicine and lifestyles, average life expectancy for Americans who reach 65 has risen nearly seven years — to 84.3 for men and 86.6 for women — since Social Security was established.

As a result, many are physically and mentally able to work beyond 65.

While plenty do, the paths of people approaching that age today vary widely by temperament and opportunity. Some with the financial means to retire at 65, or younger, still do. Others may want or need to continue working but are forced out of jobs through downsizing and restructuring moves and find it hard to land new positions at comparable pay in an increasingly Darwinian economy.

The number of older employees is climbing as the unemployment rate shrinks and companies in some sectors clamor for workers. The share of over-65 Americans still in the workforce topped 18 percent in 2016, up from 12 percent in the mid-1990s, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And older workers, on average, earn more money than ever, outpacing the average earnings growth of employees in other age groups.


But the gains aren't evenly distributed. When it comes to working longer, less-educated workers lower on the socioeconomic scale "face narrower options than their better-educated counterparts," according to a paper published last year by Boston College's Center for Retirement Research.

Yet even senior executives can be eased out by companies seeking to make room for a younger generation of leaders who might jump ship if there's no room for advancement.

"Sometimes the board or the top management will say, 'Look, we love you, but your time has come,' " said Nancy Shilepsky, who heads the employment law practice at Sherin and Lodgen in Boston.

While boards and philanthropic activities help these hard-charging professionals keep busy, many still struggle with the uncertainty that comes from no longer holding the roles they had for years at their organizations. Some who have tracked difficult adjustments have dubbed the phenomenon PTSD, for "post-transition stress disorder."

"It can be an assault on your dignity," said Paul Cronin, chief operating officer at the Successful Transition Planning Institute in Cambridge, who has worked with many people in that situation. "People say, 'What? I can't go into the office anymore?' What I tell them is when you're leaving that world, you may have to create a new identity outside the profession you're leaving."

Doing so will require them to shift their focus from their positions to their purpose, said Kevin Cashman, global leader of executive development for the consulting firm Korn Ferry in Minneapolis. "Purpose is comprehending your gifts and talent and what impact they have on people. . . . You can't really retire from your purpose."


Cashman champions "honorable closure" for executives leaving their longtime perches. "It's really important how you leave, how you advise the next generation," he said.

But for those who continue working, there will be time for those questions — later.

"There are people for whom it works great to play golf," Roosevelt said. But that's not him.

"I think I would go crazier than I am."

Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.