Tom Palome, a 77-year-old former vice president of marketing for Oral-B © Phelan M. Ebenhack-Bloomberg via Getty Images

Tom Palome, 77, former Oral-B executive

It seems like another life. At the height of his corporate career, Tom Palome was pulling in a salary in the low six-figures and flying first class on business trips to Europe.

Today, the 77-year-old former vice president of marketing for Oral-B juggles two part-time jobs: one as a $10-an-hour food demonstrator at Sam’s Club, the other flipping burgers and serving drinks at a golf club grill for slightly more than minimum wage.

While Palome worked hard his entire career, paid off his mortgage and put his kids through college, like most Americans he didn’t save enough for retirement. Even many affluent baby boomers who are approaching the end of their careers haven’t come close to saving the 10 to 20 times their annual working income that investment experts say they’ll need to maintain their standard of living in old age.

For middle class households, with incomes ranging from the mid five to low six figures, it’s especially grim. When the 2008 financial crisis hit, what little Palome had saved -- $90,000 -- took a beating and he suddenly found himself in need of cash to maintain his lifestyle. With years if not decades of life ahead of him, Palome took the jobs he could find.

Mopping floors

The youthful and perennially optimistic grandfather considers himself lucky. He’s blessed with good health, he said. He’s able to work, live independently and maintain his dignity, even if he has to mop the floors at the club grill before going home at 8 p.m. and finally getting off his feet.

“That’s part of the job,” he said. “You have to respect the job you’re doing and not be negative -- or don’t do it.”

Low-income Americans have long had to scrape by in old age, relying primarily on Social Security. The middle class, with its more educated and resourceful retirees, is supposed to be better prepared, with some even having the luxury to forge fulfilling second acts as they redefine retirement on their own terms. Or so popular culture tells us.

The reality is often quite another story. More seniors who spent much of their careers as corporate managers and professionals are competing for low-wage jobs. For these growing ranks of seniors with scant savings, it’s the end of retirement.

Downward mobility

About 7.2 million Americans who were 65 and older were employed last year, a 67 percent increase from a decade ago, according to government data. Yet 59 percent of households headed by people 65 and older currently have no retirement account assets, according to Federal Reserve data analyzed by the National Institute on Retirement Security.

“People who built successful careers, put their kids through college and saved what they could, are still facing downward mobility,” said Teresa Ghilarducci, an economist at The New School, who has studied the finances of seniors.

It’s about to get worse. Right behind the current legions of elderly workers is the looming baby boomer generation, who began turning 65 in 2011 and are reaching that age at a rate of about 8,000 a day. They’re the first generation expected to fund their own retirements, even as they live longer lives.

They, too, are coming up short. Company-paid pensions are mostly a thing of the past, replaced in the last three decades by 401k accounts primarily funded and managed by employees. The median 401k balance for households headed by people aged 55 to 64 who had retirement accounts at work was $120,000 in 2011, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

Not enough

Those savings will provide $4,800 a year, assuming seniors withdraw 4 percent annually, the amount recommended by retirement experts to ensure retirees don’t run out of money in their lifetimes.

Little wonder that half of baby boomers aged 50 to 64 don’t think they’ll ever have enough to retire, according to a 2011 survey by AARP.

“The current retirement savings systems isn’t working, and that’s becoming a crisis as Americans who make it to 65 in good health are now living at least two more decades,” said Larry Fink, chief executive officer of BlackRock Inc., the world’s largest asset manager.

“Longevity should be a blessing, but if you haven’t planned for it, you’re going to work much longer than you ever dreamed of doing,” he said. “Or you better be good to your children because you’re probably going to be living with them.”

Being independent

That’s the last thing Tom Palome wants to do -- even though his children have offered to take him in. After decades of keeping his body trim -- at 5-foot, 10-inches tall, he weighs a fit 170 -- and his hair colored a dark brown, he’s often mistaken for a 60-year-old and has no intention of giving up his independence.

On the job at Sam’s Club, Palome is easy to spot amid shoppers pushing carts down the aisles. It’s not just the bright green apron he’s wearing with the words “Tastes and Tips” printed across the front nor the matching green baseball cap that set him apart in the Brandon, Fla., store near Tampa. It’s also his charisma and determination.

He waves to a mother with a toddler in tow and insists she sample the blueberry-flavored crackers he has stacked neatly on a tray at his aluminum work station.

“They’re multigrain, and healthier for kids than cookies,” said Palome, who researches the products he pitches on the Internet.

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