How the fastest-growing group in the American work force is changing what it means to be “retired.”
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’s 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 camper 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’s might be rare, but working well into one’s seventh 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 their life path. 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. And 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 percent held a job. Now that rate is rebounding, and fast; last summer, it hit 18 percent, a level not seen since 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 as an underwater dolphin photographer. Instead, they’re resigned to meeting the new demands of a work world they thought they’d bid farewell. 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.
The decades-long retirement is actually a relatively new invention. In the early 1900s, nearly 80 percent of Americans over the age of 65 had a job. Folks expected to work for as long as they lived, says Dora Costa, an economic historian at the University of California, Los Angeles, and they’d generally stop laboring only if they became too ill or frail to keep going. The average retirement lasted three years. That began to change, of course, with the introduction of Social Security and private-sector pensions — both designed to free older workers from the need to choose between work and starvation. By the latter half of the 20th century, longer life spans meant people could count on living well past retirement age, and an evolving financial-services industry was pitching products like annuities to help people fund a long retirement. The result: By 2007, right before everything went to hell, the average retirement lasted 20 years.
Now, Americans are once again working well into their winter years, but they’re facing a very different challenge. Thanks to the nation’s transition from manufacturing powerhouse to service economy, the demands facing senior workers today tend to be mental rather than physical. U.S. jobs, on the whole, require more brain power than they used to. And while some mental abilities hold steady with age — verbal skills and job know-how, for example — others are subject to an inevitable decline after the age of 50. This slowdown affects nearly everyone: The typical senior takes twice as long as a youngster to complete a simple number-sequencing test. “There are dramatic differences,” says Bill Beckwith, a Naples, Fla., neuropsychologist.
Bill Horne of Clearwater, Fla., started to notice his brain slowing down two years ago. The 62-year-old says that if he were retired and playing golf, he wouldn’t mind. But as Clearwater’s city manager, he oversees 1,600 employees and a $375 million budget. He was spending more and more time preparing for meetings, rereading reports and juggling notes. He found himself telling the mayor and city council, “Sorry, I’ll have to get back to you on that.” His doctor, Steve Scranton at Brain Fitness Centers of Florida, one of a growing number of physicians who specialize in “cognitive rehab,” prescribed a daily regimen of mental drills, such as memorizing number sequences. Horne says the exercises, combined with a better diet (more salads, fewer carbs), produced a marked improvement: “I overcame the sluggishness.”
Of course, not all cerebral slippage can be reversed in rehab. Doctors measure cognitive function on the horribly named Global Deterioration Scale, which ranges from 1 (doing just fine!) to 7 (needs to be spoon-fed). Most working folks, including seniors, could be classified as 1. Those who register in the 2 range experience frequent memory slips. By the time you hit 3, a professional job becomes hard to manage. Beckwith recalls one client, an accountant in his 80s, who was still keeping the books for a large department store. It took him all week to finish tasks that used to take a single day.
Researchers have identified typical areas of mental decline. First, the elderly learn at a slower pace. This isn’t a big problem in blue-collar jobs or fields like general medicine, management and law, in which professionals rely heavily on pattern matching, accumulated knowledge and expertise. In fact, people tend to thrive in these occupations well into their 70s and 80s. It can be a serious challenge, however, for an executive leader in a fast-paced industry. Multitasking ability also hits the skids. An older author interrupted by a phone call requires extra time to resume her writing, for example — if she manages to remember what she was doing in the first place. Then there’s the decline in processing speed. An older person might not absorb speech as fast as his or her young coworkers are talking, and won’t understand what’s being said, says Lisa Schoonerman, cofounder of VibrantBrains, a California-based brain-fitness coaching program. Businesses like Schoonerman’s have been gaining traction; the brain-training sector’s revenue has tripled in the past five years, to $400 million. But most seniors cope on their own, inventing little work-arounds at the office to hide their deficiencies. They take copious notes when meeting with the boss and make light of enjoying another senior moment, says Rohn Kessler, a psychologist who coaches executives at his Boca Raton, Fla., outfit Sparks of Genius. “Underneath,” he adds, “they’re scared to death.”
David Weiner’s brain is working just fine, thank you very much. Still, he’s dealing with his own little carnival of anxieties. From the outside, his life looks pretty good. His new job as a direct-mail and printing broker can pay $75,000 a year in commissions. He lives in a swanky Chicago burb, where his youngest daughter earns straight A’s at a top private school; the other is in her junior year at a prestigious East Coast art college. And he plays the part of the optimist. Frank and outgoing, with big ears and snapping brown eyes, he smiles constantly as he chatters away in his office, quoting Kerouac, Eastern proverbs and favorite historians. It’s crucial, he says, between calls with clients, to stay upbeat and focused. Because the truth is, he says, “I’ve got one foot over the edge.”
Weiner had kids late in life. The 67-year-old says that it kept him young, but he’s still paying high school tuition, while his peers collect Social Security. His retirement savings took a big hit in the stock market, his house lost a third of its value, and he burned through the remaining equity while between jobs. His younger daughter, a high school senior, has set her sights on prestigious private universities across the country, including Rice, Brown and Yale, and Weiner isn’t sure how he’ll pay the tab.
And the pressure isn’t just financial. Weiner’s best friend, Joe, died suddenly a few years ago, and that left him pondering his own mortality — and his legacy. He never was crazy about the printing business, and he’d love to start over, writing and marketing for environmental causes. In fact, his one consolation is an Eco-Tips blog he writes for his employer’s website. Every week, he posts a long, advice-driven article on pet topics like water conservation. But that doesn’t help pay the bills, and it hasn’t attracted any new opportunities. The way things are looking, Weiner faces another 10 years in the printing biz.
Like many of his boomer peers, Weiner doesn’t mind working — in fact, studies show that older workers are the happiest, and a recent EBRI poll found that 92 percent of seniors cite “wanting to stay active and involved” among their reasons for working. But the hope was that in their golden years they’d set the terms and do the work they love. What’s more, seniors coming out of retirement for financial reasons often face a massive loss in pay and prestige. Last year, folks over age 62 who took a new job saw a 36 percent cut in their hourly wage, on average, compared with a 2 percent cut for workers in their 20s and 30s. So while many seniors would like to start over at a new company or even launch a new career, they decide there’s too much at stake, says Mary Hladio, CEO of Cincinnati HR consulting firm Ember Carriers. In your 30s, you can absorb the risks of failure, she says. “In your 50s and 60s, it’s over.”
Weiner seems resigned to that notion. “I should work more diligently at upping my sales,” he says. And so every morning, he shows up at the office in a crisp white shirt and tie, takes a seat on a partially deflated exercise ball (it’s better for his back) and starts making calls. The goal: to pump his commissions back to pre-2008 levels. After all, the family needs $150,000 a year just to stay afloat.
According to government estimates, the over-65 set is the fastest growing segment of the working population: More than 7 million are punching the clock, a 27 percent increase since 2007. But they’re still rare unicorns at the office. In all, they make up less than 5 percent of the labor force, although the percentages are higher in some white-collar precincts like medicine and academia. (About one out of seven tax preparers is over 65, according to the Urban Institute.) In most venues, a silver-haired professional can stick out like a 6-foot Swede on the Tokyo subway. Take a lunch-hour look around any downtown business district, and you have to wonder: Where did all the old people go? And that leaves older workers facing yet another problem: how not to stand out.
Blame it on advertising, or idiocy, but the workplace now favors the young, and old folks who stick around encounter an alien universe. Underlings dismiss their ideas as dated. Most work perks — casual dress codes, boozy corporate retreats, parental leave — target young workers, says Christina Stovall, a director at Dallas-area HR consultancy Odyssey OneSource. Even corporate training is aimed at tech-savvy kids. An oldster might need extra help navigating the new expense system, but she’s supposed to make do with a webinar. And where high-level seniors of an earlier generation might have escaped the awkwardness with a generous retirement offer or a buyout deal, many older professionals today find that’s no longer an option, says New York executive representation attorney Wendi Lazar: “We’re seeing lean and mean packages for senior-level executives all the way down.” Indeed, older workers face discrimination that manifests itself in a thousand subtle ways. They’re typically overlooked for promotions and coaching because they’re considered unteachable or nearing retirement, says New York employment attorney Salvatore Gangemi. And while employers can’t fire someone for hanging around too long, they can make office life difficult: Seniors are given impossible accounts, stripped of their responsibilities or — worst of all — assigned a 27-year-old supervisor.
Put in that kind of position, few old folks complain. Instead, they try harder. Image consultants say older clients typically come in when they notice younger colleagues getting more attention at meetings. “The younger person is heard because they appear more cutting-edge,” says Gloria Starr, who charges $3,850 for her weekend makeover seminars. Some spend thousands on hair, wardrobe and glasses — not to mention plastic surgery — to update their image. Stephanie Bickle, a Chicago communications coach, says she even sees clients seeking a more youthful voice. Older folks have dried-out vocal chords, which produce that gravelly effect, and they tend to put less energy into their speech, resulting in slower, softer, monotone delivery. Yes, you can sound younger, or at least come off as “ageless,” says Bickle. She had one CEO strengthening his voice by shouting Shakespeare and singing along with Elvis every morning, though it took months to build his stamina.
Ron Cohen started feeling out of place in his seventh decade. A straightforward, towering 75-year-old with pale eyes and a beak of a nose, he ran his own food brokerage, consulting with chefs at some of New York’s finest restaurants, including Per Se and the Four Seasons. He could walk into the kitchen as if he owned the joint and deal with fearsome chefs on equal footing. “Unfortunately,” he adds, “I got older.”
Back in the day, chefs invited Cohen to their dining rooms for coffee and cigarettes. But the new generation of young kitchen execs is far more pressured and harried. “I had to follow them around the kitchen,” he says. And while he didn’t take it personally, he found it hard to connect with a multitasking 25-year-old: “They’re not looking at you,” says Cohen. “They’re texting. They’re e-mailing.” Two years ago, Cohen closed the food brokerage to try software sales. He did well, selling 15 systems his first year out, but he got a lot of gentle ribbing from coworkers for his poky ways on the computer. “It was, ‘Come on now, Ron, you gotta keep up,'” he recalls. “And there I am, running to keep up!”
Cohen remembers the old movies about Sitting Bull. The young braves did the hunting and fighting, but they took their marching orders from the venerable chief. Now, everything is backward. Society values technical know-how over wisdom and experience, and that’s the province of the young. Because Cohen can’t afford to retire, he’s found another part-time job. At one point, he’d considered looking for work helping fellow seniors,but instead he took a job selling a kitchen gadget that restaurants use to scour pots and pans. And he’s off to a good start, he boasts: A few months into the job, he’s already sold out his entire inventory.
Not every employer devalues the Ron Cohens of the world. Some are beginning to appreciate the unique strengths — people skills, accrued wisdom and a strong work ethic — that seniors can bring to the table. A knowledge-based business depends on older folks with experience, says Vic Buzachero, senior vice president at Scripps, the $2.3 billion hospital giant based in Southern California. To retain its best doctors, nurses, executives and pharmacists, the company offers a “staged retirement” program, which lets professionals work part-time (as little as 16 hours a week) while collecting full-time benefits, including health coverage. The program saves the hospital money, he says, because it keeps experienced workers in hard-to-fill roles. Older workers who want or need longer hours can move to a schedule of three 12-hour days, allowing them to ease into the retirement lifestyle.
Scripps isn’t the only outfit hanging on to seasoned employees. Principal Financial created a formal staffing program that brings retirees back for part-time temp work while they continue to collect pensions. “They know the culture and they know their way around,” says HR director Polly Heinen. The typical employee returns three to six months into retirement, taking short-term assignments doing clerical or administrative work for 10 to 20 hours a week. And at Cornell University, professors and staff can spend their last few years on a custom-designed reduced schedule (one semester on, one semester off, for example) if they accept a commensurate pay cut. Often, the university encourages the employee to work out a multiyear agreement that includes a specific end date: It gives both parties an opportunity to plan the transition.
Granted, such programs are exceptional. According to the Society for Human Resources Management, just 6 percent of U.S. companies offer formal “phased retirement” programs, down from 13 percent in 2006. The perk evaporated during the recession, when the balance of power swung back to employers, says Deborah Seeger, cofounder of Patina Solutions, a Milwaukee firm that pairs senior professionals with contract jobs in law, accounting, engineering and finance.
Still, some workforce pros think the current employment scene likely represents a bottom for seniors. The labor market’s move toward benefit-free contract work may actually favor older workers, especially those old enough to get health insurance through Medicare. Seeger, whose firm doubled its business last year, says her clients are happy to pay $75 to $150 an hour for the services of an experienced professional who can hit the ground running and is not just willing but eager to take on a short-term engagement. Already, seniors are in high demand among nonprofits and other industries, like health care, that require good people skills and the deft touch that only comes from decades of experience. (Of the 50 companies on AARP’s list of top employers for older workers, almost half are health care companies.) Not every retirement-age job hunter can find his or her way into one of these senior-friendly positions, of course. But if the stock and housing markets recover, seniors stuck in jobs they hate will likely be among the first to bolt.
In the meantime, some are learning to enjoy the fate that’s been thrust upon them. When James Mullinex took early retirement from Verizon back in 2003, he was a senior systems engineer. He had to go back into the workforce after the 2008 market collapse, and the 70-year-old spent two years looking for work before landing a $13-an-hour job driving a van for fellow seniors. He takes his peers on picnics and beach excursions around Seattle. “I actually enjoy it — the people are very nice,” he says. It feels a little ridiculous working for a third of his old wages, but he’s taking it in stride. “Some people retire in good times, some in bad times,” he says. “It’s the luck of the draw.”