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How retirement is being reinvented worldwide

People are working longer – out of necessity and choice – as the world undergoes one of the biggest demographic shifts in history.

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Other nations could face financial burdens and political tensions because of a different problem: a rapid decrease in young people. Russia is already becoming an extreme case of outright population decline. Other nations that could soon experience falling populations include South Korea (around 2020) and China (by about 2030).

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If Asia will host the biggest gains in the number of people over 65, Europe can claim the title of being the furthest along in "aging." It will have just two working-age people for each person over 65 by midcentury, the United Nations predicts (compared with a 4-to-1 ratio in Asia).

The US is also aging. But in an important distinction from most of the developed world, America is poised for modest population growth that may make the transition less arduous.

Still, all this global graying isn't necessarily a bad thing. While the process is fraught with challenges, core elements of the trend remain positive.

Few would consider living longer a "problem," for instance. Plus, it wasn't long ago that demographers worried about the prospect of a Malthusian "population bomb" that would strain the planet to its resource limits. Although fears of environmental catastrophe haven't evaporated, the UN now predicts that the world's population could plateau within about 50 years and then start declining.

Moreover, if people find themselves working later in life, that's not automatically disappointing.

Carolyn May, in Britain, has been nudged into a new career at age 60. She was working as an educator two years ago when her employer, a college in Wales, ran into a funding shortfall. At age 58, she was suddenly jobless, departing voluntarily rather than waiting for a near-certain layoff.

But Ms. May used the setback as a catalyst for embarking on a new career that she had begun to consider even before losing her job. She invested her unemployment money to set up her own career consultancy called Still Much to Offer, which aims to connect older job seekers with potential employers. Now, as she reinvents herself, she's eager to promote the value of older workers like herself.

"A lot of people want to continue working – I want to," May says. "Lots of people still want to continue to because they have so much to offer."

May's manifesto could be an anthem of many older workers around the world – who view ­employment as an enriching adjunct to retirement – perhaps in new fields and with more flexible schedules. The shift is enabled by longer life spans and the transition of the world economy from manual labor toward knowledge work.

Yet not everyone is ready to keep working until age 75, or even 65. In America, 4 in 10 people end up retiring earlier than they planned to, often because of a health problem or the need to care for a family member, according to Anna Rappaport, a pension-policy consultant based in Chicago.

Indeed, the very concept of retirement is a relatively new phenomenon – a product of lengthening life spans over the past century and of governments' expanding social-support programs.

In many nations, older men are now working less than they used to, while older women are working more. Millions of people will still retire relatively young – either by choice or because it becomes increasingly hard to find jobs. But on average, the recent trend is for people to stay in the labor force longer.

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