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How Many Years Do You Have to Work to Retire?


The basic concept of retirement is straightforward. If you work a certain number of years and then you are able to stop working and simply enjoy life. What’s not so simple is knowing how many years you have to work to retire. Social Security seems to be based on the idea that you’ll work for somewhere between 40 and 52 years. But many Americans don’t actually work that many years before retiring. We’ll discuss the details.

A financial advisor can help you with your retirement saving strategy.  

Social Security and Medicare and Retirement

Numerous variables influence the answer to the question of how long you have to work before retiring. This can include your age, income, marital status and personal inclinations.

Social Security benefits represent an important source of income for most retirees, so that’s one way to examine the issue. The Social Security system is set up to start providing monthly benefits as early as age 62.

If you start working at age 18, you’ll be eligible after working for 44 years. If you spend four years in college before starting your career at 22, you’ll work for 40 years before you can claim your Social Security benefits.

The average age of retirement, however, is about 64. This suggests a working career of 46 years is someone who starts at 18, and 42 years for a college graduate. And some people wait until between the ages of 65 to 67 to receive full Social Security benefits.

A small number hold off until age 70 to receive the maximum. If you start working at 18 and wait until 70 to claim Social Security, that’s 52 years in the workforce.

Medicare is another factor. The government-sponsored national healthcare plan won’t cover most people until age 65.

If you get your health insurance from an employer-sponsored plan, reaching the age of Medicare eligibility can be a significant factor in determining how long you have to work before retiring. That means 47 years for someone who enters the workforce after high school, and 43 years for a college graduate.

For someone who starts working at 18, it would take 47 years of working to reach age 65 and become eligible for Medicare coverage. Delaying the start of your career by four years to go to college would reduce the number of years you work to 43.

Pensions and Retirement

SmartAsset: How many years do you have to work to retire?

If you are eligible for a corporate pension, this can significantly alter matters. For instance, members of the military and public servants such as police and firefighters typically are eligible to start receiving pension benefits after 20 years of service.

In addition, these workers are often covered by healthcare plans sponsored by their former employers. So, it’s less important that they wait for Medicare. If you enlist at 18, you could be retired by 38, with the Tricare health plan covering your medical costs and a military pension paying for the rest.

Average Expectations

Relatively few people are covered by corporate or government pensions. And the typical American is considerably older than a new graduate of high school or even college. In fact, the average person in America was 38.8 years old in 2022, according to the Census Bureau. We also know from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for people aged 35 to 44 is $62,244.

Using these two data points, plus some benchmarks for retirement living expenses and Social Security’s rules for eligibility, we can come up with a more specific, applicable idea about how long you have to work to retire.

Using age 38 as a starting point and $62,244 as starting income, a typical unmarried worker who saves 15% of their income can expect to be able to retire by age 62.  That’s in about 24 years. They will likely receive enough income from savings and Social Security to cover the typical retiree’s living expenses of about $40,400 for that pre-retirement income bracket.

This is a pro forma example and many things could change it. Varying investment returns, job changes, inflation rates and personal health challenges, among other hard-to-predict factors, could all significantly shrink or extend the number of years you have to work before retiring.

Working Careers May Be Shorter Than You Think

The length of the typical working career before retirement may be shorter than is suggested. According to a 2021 study by the Pew Research Center, a slight majority (50.3%) of U.S. adults aged 55 or over said they were retired.

This number tends to change in response to economic cycles with, for instance, people tending to postpone retirement during recessions. But based on these findings, once you reach 55, after 37 years of work, you may well be ready to stop working and retire.

Bottom Line

The number of years you have to work to retire depends on, among other things, when you start working. And not to mention how much you earn and your current age. If you start working in the private sector at 18 and wait until age 70 to claim the maximum Social Security benefits, you could expect to work for 52 years.

Tips for Retirement Planning

  • Consider meeting with a financial advisor to discuss Social Security benefits planning and where that might fit into your retirement plans. And finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • In addition to benefiting from a financial advisor’s advice, get quick insights that come from using a free retirement calculator.

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