Meet Michael Robbins.
The Boston money manager was born in 1926. He remembers the Great Depression. His father was wiped out in the Crash of ‘29. He uses old-fashioned language and refers to “hosses,” not horses. He still wears a bow tie to the office.
And yet he’s a very modern face of the future economy. That’s because Robbins is still working full time at the age of 95.
He even cycles into work every day. (If you know Boston, that is pretty frightening—not as much because of the weather but because of the city’s notorious roads and traffic.)
It’s not news that we in America — and much of the world — face an alarming demographic crunch. The numbers of older people are rising much faster than the numbers of the young and middle-aged. The math of the current retirement system doesn’t add up. Investing Social Security in the stock market, and encouraging more high-skilled immigration, would both help, but those in power are not interested in either step — for reasons best known to themselves (and their lobbyists).
One of the inevitable results is that more of us are going to need to work for longer. And this needn’t always be a bad thing: Hanging up your suit and tie and going fishing at 65 doesn’t make total sense if you’re going to live for another 30 years.
Which leads me to the case of Robbins, a senior wealth manager at Mayflower Advisors in Boston’s financial district.
It is almost surreal at this point to be talking to a full-time office worker who can give you chapter and verse not only on what the Great Depression was like–“It was as bad as they say it was—people really starved” — but also on his memories from that era of how and why FDR screwed up his handling of it. “I thought he handled it very poorly,” Robbins says. (The memory is so vivid to Robbins that at one point he joke-mimes strangling someone to show his frustration.)
He repeats a long rhyme from the 1930s about all the New Deal’s idiocies (such as FDR’s mass destruction of pigs, at a time of widespread starvation, in an insane attempt to boost farm incomes).
Robbins has been around so long that he is the last founding member still alive of an investment club that began in the 1960s, and used to meet monthly at the legendary Boston downtown restaurant Locke-Ober. The restaurant, once an institution of Boston’s financial district, went out of business years ago. The club continues.
Robbins works alongside some people 60 years younger than him: People who don’t remember 9/11, let alone the Great Depression. This sort of phenomenon is more likely to become much more common, if current trends continue. Even if few of us are able to keep working into our 90s, many more will be working into our 70s and 80s.
Since the mid-1980s, federal data show that the percentage of the over-65s still working has nearly doubled, from a low of 10% to around 20% just before the pandemic. The percentage of the over-75s roughly doubled as well, from around 4% to 8%.
If you back much further, older people working used to be the norm: At the end of the World War II roughly half of all men over 65 still worked –although comparatively few men lived very long after 65. But during the “golden age of retirement,” from the late 1940s to the mid-1980s, that collapsed to around 15%. People lived longer, but they had well funded final salary pensions supported by stable employers. A huge wave of baby boomer workers came along to pay into the system.
That golden age is long gone. We are likely to be heading into a new era.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It will depend. There are plenty of studies suggesting that working longer can be good for you—mentally and physically. Keeping working may even hold off the onset of dementia. Work provides mental stimulation, a sense of purpose, and people to talk to — or did until everybody decided to work from home. While Robbins still comes in, much of downtown Boston is now deserted, and many major office buildings are, as one local put it, “desolate.”
There again, there are studies also suggesting that having to work for longer is bad for you.
Possibly a key difference is whether you have a job you like, with people you like, or not. No one knows who first observed, “if you do a job you love you won’t work a day in your life,” but Robbins says it resonates with him.
Robbins doesn’t need to keep working. I asked him why he did it. “What else would I do?” he replied. “I like working. I’m fascinated by the markets.”