By Chris Adams

After falling for more than a century, the working lifespan of Americans has begun to go up.

And Americans aren’t alone.

Working longer, in fact, has become a trend in the United States and nearly all other rich countries, according to Gary Burtless, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. Since hitting its low in 1990, the average American man’s working life has gone up three years – from 62 to 65.

In a discussion with National Press Foundation fellows, Burtless (bio, Twitter) talked about the trend toward working longer and the impact it has on the nation’s retirement system, both public and private.

A key part of that pension system for many workers for many years was the traditional – or defined-benefit – pension. After working for  many years, workers got a set amount every month until they died. It was a great thing – if you had one.

It’s also something of a myth that such pensions were a main driver of Americans’ retirement.

The 40-years-and-a-gold-watch career path was the reality for a subset of workers – but not most of them.

“What people have in the back of their mind as a normal career is in fact an unusual one,” Burtless said.

Understanding that is important to understanding the nation’s current retirement system. Those traditional pensions are more and more rare, and Americans often won’t last with the employer who they think will take them across the finish line.

“Most workers are overconfident in how long their employment relationship will last,” Burtless said.

While Burtless said the media often bemoan the dwindling of traditional pensions, Burtless said it’s not all that bad. (The numbers: The percentage of private-sector workers covered  by a traditional pension has dropped from more than 60 percent to less than 10 percent.)

There are also substantial risks for companies offering such pensions, which is also why some retirees are facing a crisis today – their promised pensions are endangered.