Working yourself to death used to be the lot of the laboring masses. Now it is the ultimate luxury of the ultra-rich.
With his refusal to publicly name a successor last month, 81-year-old Warren Buffett joined the club of billionaire octogenarians spurning retirement. Fellow 81-year-old George Soros is so vibrant that in addition to his philanthropic and political work, he’s currently battling his 28-year-old Brazilian ex-girlfriend in a $50 million court case. Polls be damned, 78-year-old casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is singlehandedly propping up Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign. Viacom head Sumner Redstone, 88, made a rare public appearance just before Valentine’s Day, at a party for a book called The End of Illness. In photos of the event, he is seen holding the book aloft, a deadly serious look in his eye.
A recent global survey of 2,000 high-net-worth individuals by Ledbury Research found that 60 percent were not planning on a traditional retirement. Among U.S. respondents, 75 percent expected to continue working in some capacity even after stepping away from full-time jobs. “Many of these people made their wealth by doing something they’re passionate about,” says Daniel Egan, head of behavioral finance for Barclays Wealth Americas. “Given the choice, they prefer to continue working.” Barclays calls these people “nevertirees.”
Unlike many Americans compelled into early retirement by company restrictions or recession-era layoffs, your average nevertiree often has no one forcing his hand. If 106-year-old investor Irving Kahn, head of his own family firm, wants to keep coming to work every day, who’s going to stop him? Seventy-eight-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s job security is guaranteed in the Constitution. The Academy just rewarded 82-year-old Christopher Plummer’s late-life work ethic with an Oscar.
It may seem that by refusing to decamp to Boca, these power geriatrics are trying to cheat death. In fact, they are. And it’s working. Howard S. Friedman, a professor at UC Riverside and one of the authors of The Longevity Project, found in his research that those who work hardest and are successful in their careers often live the longest lives. “People are generally being given bad advice to slow down, take it easy, stop worrying, and retire to Florida,” he says. He described one study participant, still working at the age of 100, who was recently disappointed to see his son retire.
The phenomenon may be trickling down to the other 99 percent. “We’re beginning to see a change in how people view retirement,” says George Leeson, codirector of the Institute of Population Ageing at Oxford. Where once retirement was seen as a brief reward after a long slog through some miserable job, it is now akin to being cast aside. Life expectancies have risen, the retirement age has fallen, pension funds are overdrawn: something has to give. What Leeson terms “the Buffett effect” is becoming more broadly appealing as individuals come to “view retirement as not simply being linked to economic productivity but also about contribution. And they want to continue making that contribution.”
Observers are split on whether this is a wholly good thing. On the one hand, companies and financial firms can benefit from the wisdom of a resilient chief. On the other, a glut at the top can make it difficult for a new generation to advance—an argument that typically holds little sway to a nevertiree.
Said 69-year-old Paul McCartney in a recent Rolling Stone interview: “You get the argument, ‘Make way for the young kids,’ and you think, ‘F--k that, let them make way for themselves. If they’re better than me, they’ll beat me.’”