Product demos

He’s supposed to sell two boxes of the crackers during his seven-hour shift. He sells 24 by clean-up time, then grabs a garbage bag and gathers containers and leftover food from demonstration carts around the store.

The next day, a humid Sunday in August, Palome is at his second part-time job, an eight-hour shift as a short-order cook and bartender at Rogers Park Golf Course in Tampa. Working solo, he’s in perpetual motion, rushing between the take-out counter at the golf course’s cafe and indoor counter to collect orders and operate the cash register, while grilling hot dogs and hamburgers and grabbing soft drinks from the refrigerator.

It’s a busy day at the 18-hole municipal course, and he serves 70 customers before closing time. Then he scrubs down the grill and sweeps and mops the floors.

Palome earns about $80 for his day’s work, $7.98 per hour in wages, plus tips.

“I earn in a week what I used to earn in an hour,” he said, adding that he understands seniors can’t easily keep or get jobs that pay middle-income wages.

Social Security

Palome, who said his jobs keep him active and learning new things, could survive without working. He receives $1,200 from Social Security and a $600 a month pension from his last corporate job. Still, his $1,400 in monthly wages allows him to bolster his savings and provides for some extras. He goes to the theater, pays for plane tickets to visit his children and grandsons and takes occasional vacations.

“I know seniors like me who hardly ever leave their homes because they don’t have money to do anything,” Palome said. “They could work, but won’t take a lesser job.”

To stretch his income, Palome runs his dishwasher once a week and turns off his hot water heater every morning after he showers. He buys airline tickets six months in advance, booking rental cars for as little as $13.80 a day.

Getting stuck

Palome grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. His parents were both immigrants, and his father worked as a laborer. After a stint in the Navy, Palome had a chance to work at a local International Business Machine Corp. (IBM) plant. The work was steady, with solid pay and benefits. Instead, he enrolled at Fordham University to study business, relying on veteran benefits to pay tuition. His father was so angry Palome turned down the plant job that he didn’t speak to him for months.

“I knew that anyone who got into that plant never got out,” he said. “You just got stuck because of the steady pay.”

Palome landed a job at Shulton Co., the maker of Old Spice after-shave lotion and cologne, then moved to Yardley of London as a brand manager. His big break came in 1975 when he was recruited to The Cooper Cos. as vice president of marketing for the Oral-B dental-care business.

The job gave him a high five-figure income and an executive’s life at age 39. He flew first class to Cooper offices in the U.S. and in England, Sweden and Germany. He helped win an endorsement for the Oral-B toothbrush from the U.S. Olympic Committee. He had a closet filled with business suits, and on weekends he played golf with other executives.

Tragedy strikes

That life turned upside down when his wife, Edna, was killed in a car accident in 1983. Palome’s daughter, then a college student, offered to come home to take care of her brothers, who were 14 and 16 years old. Palome insisted she stay in school. He took charge of the parenting and the housework.

“I was numb, in shock and trying to hold everything together,” he said. “And my sons didn’t want anyone in the house besides me, not even a housekeeper.”

When Cooper relocated from New Jersey to California, Palome didn’t want to uproot his family. So in 1980, when he was 44, he started a consulting company, with Cooper as his main client. He also did consulting for Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson and others.

In flush years, Palome had several clients and earned about $120,000. Though he saved for his kids’ college and helped his elderly parents, retirement wasn’t on his radar.

“I never thought I’d live this long,” he said.

No savings

Because he was self-employed, Palome didn’t have a 401k account, and he has never had a tax-deferred IRA, or Individual Retirement Account. It’s the same for most Americans. Only about half of private-sector workers were covered by an employer-sponsored retirement plan of any kind in 2011. And fewer than 40 percent of those participated, according to the Employee Benefits Research Institute.

Many now approaching retirement began saving too late, stopped saving when they lost jobs, or borrowed against their 401k accounts to finance their children’s college tuition. They also often chose investments that failed to yield the best results, or they bailed out of the stock market after the financial crisis battered their savings, then missing the rebound.

“How is the average middle-class person going to amass $1,000,000 by the time they’re 65, which is what they’ll need to get $40,000 a year in income from their retirement savings?” Ghilarducci said.

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