4/11/2012 4:01 PM ET|
Will you need a job when you're 75?
Disappearing pensions, an uncertain economy and shrinking home values are keeping many seniors in the workforce -- or bringing them back.
After Ailika Thomas woke up from a snooze, her husband brought her coffee in bed. It was 7 p.m., and the 73-year-old was facing a long, moonlit drive from her rural Indiana home to Chicago; Dean wanted to make the journey as easy as possible for his wife. As she dressed, he warmed the car (a red Buick named Carmen) and stocked it with snacks -- containers of sugar peas, blueberries and her favorite, raw turnips. When Ailika emerged from the back door in a pink-and-white pants combo accompanied by her two Yorkshire terriers, Dean gave her a warm goodbye kiss and made her promise to call at journey's end.
It was a touching scene, but a familiar routine: Thomas' destination was her job. Five nights a week, she drives 90 minutes each way to work the midnight shift as a research supervisor for a big company downtown.
Thomas can't afford to retire. She's not complaining. The job keeps her connected, the benefits are generous, and there's still time to volunteer at downtown theaters and enjoy camping trips with Dean. But the commute! Sometimes, even the latest Dean Koontz thriller on tape can't keep her awake. She mists her face with a water fan, gulps 5-Hour Energy shots (bought by the case at Costco) and yells in the car. When the urge to nod off proves irresistible, she pulls off the interstate and naps in a supermarket parking lot.
Some might suggest that after 56 years in the labor force (she got her first full-time job in 1956, working for Encyclopaedia Britannica) and nearly two decades at the firm, it's time for Thomas to take it easy. But employers in nearby Michigan City don't pay nearly as well, and good luck finding a new gig when you're 73. Ask how long she'll continue, and Thomas says it's not her call: "I don't know how long God's going to let me live."
Commutes like Thomas' might be rare, but working well into one's eighth decade is a scenario that has become -- seemingly overnight -- relatively commonplace. For millions of workers, retirement has been delayed for years; others say they may never retire. Thanks to the nation's massive asset meltdown -- sagging retirement accounts, plunging property values -- an enormous swath of the population has had to redefine life paths. Older folks who assumed they'd be retired by now are struggling with the need to work long after the passion (not to mention the brain and the body) has started to fade.
The result of all this turmoil is a little-noticed but profound shift in the workforce. Some academics say we may well be reverting to historical norms, returning to pre-New Deal conditions in which most Americans had to work until they, well, dropped. The number of working people over age 65 reached an all-time low in 2001, when just 13% held jobs. Now that rate is rebounding, and fast; last summer, it hit 18%, a level not seen since President John F. Kennedy faced the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Of course, plenty of folks still have enough money to retire comfortably. But many boomers, facing a bipolar stock market and a pathetic return on their savings, feel deeply insecure; in one recent Associated Press survey, one in four predicted they'd never be able to retire. And between those two extremes, millions of workers in their 50s and 60s have quietly given up on the dream of an early retirement or the launch of an "encore" career. Instead, they're resigned to meeting the new demands of a work world they thought they'd bid farewell to. Facebook and LinkedIn? They were supposed to be playthings for the junior executive. Brain exercises? They were pitched as preventive medicine for senility, not a job requirement. Cosmetic surgery? Laughable -- until your career depends on it.
Labor experts say this first wave of delayed retirees will face the biggest challenges. They weren't prepared for the sharp reversal in expectations, or the difficulties of working while elderly -- nor were their employers. But for better or worse, this group is blazing a trail that subsequent generations of workers may wind up walking.
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