Should You Un-Retire from Dentistry?

Summary:

The changing retirement landscape has dentists considering un-retiring. Explore the motivations and financial implications of returning to dental practice.

Key Takeaways:

  • Retired dental entrepreneurs are choosing to go back to work---to stay engaged in the field and to tackle new challenges, among other reasons
  • Working "in retirement" can have an impact on Social Security benefits and other aspects of your finances as a dental professional.
  • Leveraging contacts and previous dental employers or partners can be good ways to reenter the workforce.

Millions of Americans, including many dental professionals, retire every year. But a significant chunk of those retirees eventually end up back in the workforce or seriously consider the prospect of earning a paycheck again.

Their reasons for doing so are many and varied. What's more, this trend of "unretiring" has become increasingly common in recent years---driven in part by economic- and pandemic-related factors that have a growing number of retired dental professionals stepping back into the practice or the classroom.

​Whether you're among this group of driven dental entrepreneurs or you've simply considered what a "working retirement" could look like for you, it's a good time to get up to speed on the unretiring trend---and, in particular, what it might mean for your overall financial picture as a dental professional.

Welcome back to dentistry!

In the midst of the pandemic came the so-called Great Resignation, when around 2.4 million more Americans retired than had been expected to, according to U.S. Labor Department data. But the tight labor market and historically high inflation that eventually followed---along with other factors---prompted many new retirees, including dental professionals, to rethink the transition into their golden years.

Example: The number of employees who retired and then returned to work a year later more than doubled from 2020 to spring 2022, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Meanwhile, a CNBC survey of those who retired during the pandemic found 68% would consider returning to work.

​That said, the pandemic didn't create the unretiring movement. Back in 2018, 13% of adults age 45 or older said they were retired but working, while 28% said they were retired and looking for work, according to AARP.

Why un-retire from dentistry?

The numbers reveal that retirees, including dental professionals, have been rejoining the ranks of the employed at a fairly consistent pace over time. There's an obvious question, of course: Why do retired dental entrepreneurs end up working again?

​Retired dental professionals cite several key reasons for unretiring. Chief among them:

Financial need. Pre-retirement wealth planning is designed to help you avoid financial trouble during retirement. That said, unexpected costs can potentially create the need for additional income---if, say, health care costs spike (or, on a more positive note, you decide to buy another home or travel more than you expected). Financially supporting family members from various generations could also cause a cash crunch.

Staying engaged in dentistry. Retired dental professionals commonly complain of boredom---which isn't terribly surprising given that rising life expectancies mean we end up spending much more time in retirement than did previous generations. Consider that 32% of retirees in one survey by Forbes Health said they didn't feel well prepared for the day-to-day experience of being retired. Work of some sort in the dental field can help fill up hours in ways that feel meaningful and important.

The fact is, employment in dentistry brings with it perks that many retired dental professionals end up missing. They include mental stimulation and physical activity, a broader sense of purpose, self-esteem and self-identity, and a built-in community (colleagues, patients, etc.) that fosters friendships and social engagement.

While these may seem like "soft" benefits, they may lead to very tangible positive outcomes. Example: A 2017 study in the European Journal of Epidemiology that tracked several essential cognitive functions of nearly 3,500 participants before and after retirement found "all domains of cognition declined over time." What's more, verbal memory specifically declined 38% faster after retirement than before retirement.

Of course, a late-in-life job in dentistry isn't the only way to stay mentally alert, physically active and socially engaged. But given how familiar most dental professionals are with having a career, it's an option worth considering. Indeed, one-third of retirees in the survey noted above said they wished they'd kept working longer in their careers.

Tackling new challenges in dentistry. Work largely defines many people---particularly those who climbed the dental practice ladder, owned a practice or two, or otherwise pursued workplace success aggressively. For such driven dental entrepreneurs, retirement can be a time to take on new professional challenges or pursue dental career paths they couldn't in the past. Ex-practice owners, for example, may become consultants to other practices looking to grow, or even mentors helping emerging dental entrepreneurs achieve breakthroughs.

Helping a former dental employer or partner. Some retired dental professionals return to their old practices to help their ex-employers train a new crop of employees or address other initiatives. They might do this out of a sense of loyalty or a desire to give back to an employer who treated them well, or for any of the other three reasons noted above. Returning to a familiar practice and environment can potentially be a more comfortable way to unretire than pursuing an entirely new venture.

Financial implications of unretiring for dental professionals

From a wealth management perspective, it's important to examine the potential implications that unretiring could have on your financial life as a dental professional. It's quite possible that returning to work would affect some aspects of your wealth and be inconsequential to others.

Take Social Security, for example. Regardless of whether Social Security is a significant part of your retirement income stream, it's smart to understand how working in retirement can impact this benefit that you've earned and got coming to you.

In general, it works like this. If you are receiving Social Security and working before your full retirement age, your benefit could be temporarily withheld. Individuals below full retirement age who also earn more than $22,320 in 2024 will have $1 taken out of their Social Security payments for every $2 earned above that cap. However, during the actual year you hit your full retirement age, you get a bit of a break: $1 in benefits is deducted for every $3 earned above $59,520 in 2024 for the months before full retirement age is reached. (Note: These earnings limits apply to self-employment, too.)

The good news: Once you reach full retirement age (66 for many people these days), you can work without your Social Security benefit being reduced. What's more, your benefit amount will be recalculated starting with the month you hit full retirement age. You'll also be credited for the months when your benefits were reduced or withheld because of any excess earnings over the limit. You might even receive higher benefit payments because you continued to earn.

Keep in mind that you can stop or suspend Social Security payments if you go back to work. The rules depend on your age and may require you to pay back benefits you've earned to date.

There's also Medicare to consider. If you return to work for a dental practice that offers private health insurance, you can enroll and still keep your Medicare coverage (as either primary or secondary coverage). You can drop Medicare Part B to save some money, but the rules can be tricky here and you may end up getting penalized. If you later return to retirement (or lose the employer health coverage), you'll need to re-up for Part B within eight months to avoid a lifetime penalty. What's more, if you keep your Medicare coverage but end up earning a sizable income from unretiring, be prepared to potentially pay more for Part B and Part D as a high-income earner.

Unretiring can also have an effect on a pension you receive as well as minimum distributions you're required to take from a 401(k) after a certain age. Best bet: Consult with a trusted advisor about the various rules as they relate to you and your specific situation as a dental professional, and to do a cost-benefit analysis of any moves you're considering---whether they're about retirement, unretirement or re-retirement!

Getting back into dentistry

There's no single "right" or perfect way to reenter the dental workforce after retiring. One piece of good news is that many dental practices are actively courting older dental professionals these days---a welcome change from the past, when seniors were often intentionally overlooked for jobs.

​Some smart ways for dental professionals to get back into the workforce include:

  • Identify your value in dentistry. Chances are, there were a handful of things you did exceptionally well that drove your professional success in the dental field. Home in on those top skills---they'll be the ones you market and offer to others. However, don't overlook the fun aspect---you want to enjoy the work you do.
  • Start with a previous dental employer or partner. Your deep knowledge of your role (and perhaps other roles) at a previous dental job may prompt an ex-employer to welcome you back with open arms---and a willingness to be highly flexible about when, where and how you work. Look for opportunities to train new hires or act as a consultant to the dental practice.
  • Leverage your dental contacts. If you have an extensive list of business contacts from your many years of working in dentistry, reach out to them right from the start. Don't ignore this low-hanging fruit. You might offer your services directly to them or seek referrals through them. Either way, existing trusted relationships in the dental community can help you build the foundation of your unretired life.

Conclusion

It seems likely that unretirement will be an increasingly popular option for dental professionals in the coming decades, especially given that most Americans are living both longer and more active lives that need physical and mental stimulation. In addition, remote working has become more commonplace, allowing older dental workers who don't want to commute to contribute in meaningful ways.

​The upshot: If you're currently retired from dentistry or you're nearing the day when you're ready to exit the dental workforce, keep unretirement on your radar.

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