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Bill VanGorder, the former chief executive officer of the Lung Association of Nova Scotia, had expected to retire at age 63 and live off his savings.

PAUL DARROW/The Globe and Mail

Bill VanGorder is aware of the irony that he now works longer hours, at the age of 70, than he ever did before he retired.

The former chief executive officer of the Lung Association of Nova Scotia, who spent decades as an executive and fundraiser in the non-profit sector, had expected to retire at age 63 and live off his savings.

Then the recession hit. Markets tumbled, wiping $300 a month in his income from investments – a shortfall that pushed him back into the work force.

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The Halifax resident now wears many hats, as a business development manager, consultant and owner of a company that distributes Nordic walking poles. It's fulfilling work, he said, even if it fills up his weekends. But he is clear that the decision to go back to work stemmed from economic necessity.

And he's not alone. "I run into a lot of people in similar circumstances, but many of them are having to work in things they really don't like doing," Mr. VanGorder noted.

Across Canada, tepid economic conditions have sparked a sea change in how people view retirement. Only 25 per cent of Canadians now expect to retire at age 66, with a growing number saying they will keep working because of financial need, according to Sun Life Financial's annual "unretirement" survey to be released Wednesday.

Five years ago, the same survey found that half of Canadians figured they would retire at age 66. And those who planned to keep working did so by choice – they enjoyed their job and wanted to stay mentally active.

A slew of factors explain the shift. Volatile stock markets, rising costs – in food and shelter particularly – reduced pensions and savings along with much longer life expectancies are some of the drivers. So too is a slow economy, with expectations that growth (and returns on investment) will remain soft in the years to come.

"We are seeing more individuals saying they'll delay retirement – and in some cases, substantially – out of necessity rather than choice," said John McIntosh, a retirement expert at Towers Watson. "People are more concerned they might outlive their wealth."

The shift has many implications, particularly for work force planning, he said. It might make conditions tougher for younger people to enter the work force or be promoted, and present challenges to employers if older workers are staying on the job when they don't really want to.

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Economic necessity is driving the shift, particularly in the past two years, Sun Life's survey shows. Nearly two thirds, or 63 per cent, of people who expect to delay retirement are doing so out of need, up from 53 per cent in 2009. And a quarter of people who expect to delay retirement are doing so because they need to cover basic living expenses – up from 11 per cent five years ago.

Why the big shift, given that Canada's recession was milder than in other countries, and than prior downturns?

Initially, "there was a sense among some that we'd escaped the worst of the crisis," the report said. By 2010, however, "it had become apparent that Canada had entered a slow-growth economic period that was likely to last a considerable amount of time."

A confluence of factors are keeping people on the job, noted Kevin Dougherty, president of Sun Life Financial Canada. "The financial crisis, low interest rates and people living longer have clearly had an impact on Canadians' retirement expectations, " he said, adding that more people are "staying in the workforce longer to help cover basic expenses over their longer lifetime."

Rising debt loads may also be prompting more people to fret about finances. People over the age of 65 are the only age group that boosted the pace of debt accumulation last year, according to a study published last week by Toronto-Dominion Bank. "There is a concern that Canadians are entering retirement more financially vulnerable than they have in the past," the bank said.

Victor Levy, 81, has worked well past the traditional age of retirement. The Mississauga resident spent decades working as an accountant and manager at insurance and media companies. He retired at 62, but the need "to make ends meet" and desire to stay active led him back to the work force. He held a part-time job, doing physical labour at his church for 14 years, until a shoulder injury last year put him on hiatus.

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"Most people, at 65, still feel healthy, so what's the point in quitting?" he said, adding that if the right opportunity were to come his way, he would consider working again.

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