Why Women Should Keep Working After Their Husbands Retire

New research shows that many American women would benefit financially from continuing to work after their husbands have retired.

“If you have had a period out of the labor force, or a period of part-time work, or a period when you were earning much less than you’re earning now….you have an opportunity to replace those zeros with positive numbers that are high,” said Ms. Maestas, an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. “I’m not sure people are fully aware of all of that.”

She presented her findings in January at the American Economic Association’s annual meeting in Philadelphia, and the National Bureau of Economic Research circulated it in late March as a working paper.

Social Security retirement benefits depend on how much someone earns over the course of their career, calculated based on their 35 highest-earning years. A partial monthly payment can be claimed based on a spouse’s lifetime earnings. Workers can claim benefits starting at age 62, but have the option of increasing the amount by waiting to claim as late as age 70.

Even in two-earner households, women may have more years of zero or low earnings if they took time out of the workplace to care for children or other relatives. In addition, because married women tend to be younger than their husbands, they effectively retire earlier if they stop working when their husbands reach retirement age.

Many factors go into decisions about when to stop working. But Ms. Maestas said many women could boost their retirement income by working later in life and earning enough that benefits based on their own career earnings would be larger, exceeding the partial benefits they could claim based on their spouse’s earnings.

“A few more years of work really can make a difference,” she said.

For married baby-boomer women, working until age 70 would boost their total lifetime Social Security benefits by about 10% versus retiring at age 62.

Her paper analyzed data from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study and concluded that women have much more to gain from waiting to retire, in part because men are usually further past their peak earning years by their 60s. She wrote that continuing to work until 70 “would be sufficient to offset early gaps in their earnings records and would place women on par with men” in terms of expected total lifetime Social Security retirement benefits.

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