Robert Scheidly delivering newspapers

At 76, Robert Scheidly gets up at 2 a.m. for his daily four-hour newspaper route. His wife, Anna, 72, coordinates operations at a warehouse one day a week and applies for jobs the rest.

"I was hoping that by this age we would be able to maybe enjoy going to visit his or my brothers or sisters," said Anna, a former receptionist and bookkeeper. "But we both really need to work in order to make ends meet."

The Scheidlys' story is increasingly common. As those older than 65 become the nation's fastest-growing workforce demographic -- increasing at five times the pace of younger workers -- the primary reason cited for continuing to punch the clock is money.

Surveys consistently reveal this to be the case, even though seniors often find work to be fulfilling and may forget that money was their primary motivation.

"The reasons can change as people experience going to work," said Caitrin Lynch, an associate professor of anthropology at Olin College and the author of "Retirement on the Line: Age, Work and Value in an American Factory."

"A lot of people can't disentangle that," she said, "even if their initial motivation may have been that, 'I need to pay for heat in the winter.'"

The statistics are sobering:

  • More than half the nation's workers are at risk of being unable to maintain their standard of living in retirement, according to research from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Nearly two-thirds of low-income households are at risk.
  • According to the Social Security Administration, 34% of the workforce has no savings set aside for retirement.
  • For most families with members over 65, Social Security constitutes the bulk of household income, even though Social Security was never meant to do such heavy lifting. For those in the middle third of the income scale, it provides 71% of income; for those in the bottom third, 88%.
  • Social Security income averages just under $16,000 per year for those ages 65 to 74, less for those past 75.
  • In 2020, nearly a quarter of Americans over the age of 65, or 22.6%, are projected to be in the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared with 11.8% who worked in 1990.

Like millions of Americans, the Scheidlys had always been frugal, and they had always worked. Robert was a welder until his factory shut down in 1987, then a minister.

"We lived hoping that we could retire, but we didn't set anything aside because we used what we got, mainly to raise a family," Anna Scheidly said. "Some people would say that it was our fault because we didn't plan right, but you do the best that you can in the situation you are in."

According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, two-fifths of families with seniors are like the Scheidlys, with expenditures outweighing income in retirement. And the recent economic turmoil isn't to blame -- at least not fully.

Yes, the stock market crash depleted individual retirement plans. The housing crash sucked the value from many people's greatest asset. And for some, the recession added the financial burden of supporting younger relatives.

But these factors merely exacerbated trends that have been in the making for 20 to 30 years, say experts. The typical working lifetime has expanded as wages have fallen, and a great share of jobs available are less demanding physically. Meanwhile the shift away from company pension plans has put the onus on workers to save for retirement.

In just one generation, the shift away from pensions has been dramatic. In 1983, 88% of workers were enrolled in a private or public employer pension plan. In 2010, only 31% were, according to the Center for Retirement Research.

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