In the film ‘The Intern’, Robert De Niro’s 70-year-old character Ben Whittaker returns to work as a senior intern after retiring © Allstar/Warner Bros.

A quarter of Britain’s retirees change their minds and “unretire” back into the workforce, according to research that sheds new light on the record employment rates among older people.

The proportion of people who work after they turn 65 has doubled to about 10 per cent since the turn of the millennium, while the share of 50 to 64-year-olds in work has climbed to a record 71 per cent.

These trends have prompted much discussion about why people are delaying the decision to retire. But a new academic study suggests retirement is also a far more fluid and reversible process than is often assumed.

Researchers from the University of Manchester and King’s College London used the British Household Panel Survey, a longitudinal study of individuals that began in 1991, to identify people who reported themselves as “working” after having previously described themselves as retired.

They found that about 25 per cent of people who retired from paid work subsequently “unretired” over the next 15 years. Most of them did so within the five years of retirement. Men were more likely to “unretire” than women, and healthy people were more likely to do so than unhealthy people.

The survey did not ask why people returned to work, but surveys from North America suggest people “unretire” for a number of reasons. These include the need to improve finances; missing social contact or daily routines; not enjoying retirement; or being asked to “help out”.

The UK researchers used self-reported financial data in the survey to investigate whether people in Britain were “unretiring” because they had financial problems and needed to boost their incomes. Their findings were mixed. On the one hand, they did find that people who were still paying off their mortgages were 50 per cent more likely to “unretire” than people who owned their homes outright. But they did not find higher levels of “unretirement” among people who reported they had financial problems.

The researchers also found that people with better levels of education were more likely to “unretire” than lower-educated people, possibly because they found it easier to re-enter the labour market.

“The evidence that people with more human capital have a higher likelihood of unretiring, rather than those in financial difficulties, suggests that hopes that ‘retirement reversals’ might be a strategy which enables older people in poorer financial situations to raise their incomes are possibly misplaced,” the study concluded.

Senior investigator Karen Glaser, who is a professor of gerontology at King’s College London, warned this “may lead to future disparities in later life income”.

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