December 31, 2011

USA: More Americans put retirement on hold

SEATTLE, WA / The Seattle Times / December 31, 2011

The troubled economy is just the latest factor in a growing phenomenon in the American workplace: Workers staying on the job past the conventional "retirement age" of 65.

By Jack Broom
Seattle Times staff reporter

Ted Tomita, 67, of Bellevue, wouldn't mind a little more time for travel and golf, but has no plans to retire soon from the 82-year-old printing business started by his father and uncle, and now run by Tomita and his younger brother. John Lok / The Seattle Times


At 68, Joy LaJeret has applied for enough jobs to recognize some of the code phrases potential employers use.
They don't come right out and say, "You're too old."
But they might say something subtle such as: "We're looking for someone who would grow with the company."
She's even heard this: "With all your experience, you'd probably be bored with a job like this."
But LaJeret, of Redmond, has kept working part-time office jobs while training for something better. She believes she has no choice. She can't afford to retire.
And she's not alone. Americans, in ever-increasing numbers, are staying on the job past the traditional "retirement age" of 65.
The percentage of senior citizens working has nearly doubled in the past two decades. Now roughly one in seven Washington residents 65 years and older is employed.
The trend is expected to accelerate as more baby boomers approach retirement age. Workers 55 and older accounted for less than 10 percent of the state's workforce in 1990, but more than 20 percent by the end of 2010.
In some professions, such as teaching, veteran workers staying on the job reduces the number of openings for new candidates. And in some entry-level jobs, such as fast-food restaurants and coffee houses, senior citizens are doing work that used to be done by teenagers.
What keeps them working: the pull and push
Employment Security Department economist Scott Bailey says older workers are influenced by "pull" factors, the reasons they'd want to keep working, and "push" factors, the reasons they can't retire. Some examples workers have voiced:
Pull
• Good health
• Enjoyment of job
• Work is less physically demanding
• Newer opportunities for women
• Work provides structure, validation
Push
• Low savings rate
• Fewer workers covered by pensions
• 401(k)s took a hit
• Still paying for kids' college education
• Can't downsize: Kids have come back home
• Worries about Social Security/Medicare
• Divorce sends mom back into the workforce

Dale Burdett, 78, likes the paycheck and interaction
with customers he gets at the Edmonds grocery
where he's worked for 15 years.
"I think if my legs hold up, I'll be OK.
John Lok / The Seattle Times
For the first time on record, senior citizens outnumbered teens in the U.S. labor force in 2010, according to a compilation by Bloomberg News of data dating to 1948.
The reasons people work past 65 are varied: Some love their work. Some hesitate to walk away from the security of a paycheck or health coverage. And some stay because the troubled economy of the past few years pulled the rug out from under them.
"Unless I win one heck of a big lottery, I'd like to keep doing this," said Randy McDougall, 65, taking a break from directing big trucks up the loading ramps at the Washington State Convention Center, a part-time job he's had since early 2010. For 17 years, McDougall worked at a small company that specialized in aerial photography. The firm's most dependable customers, he said, were companies doing large-scale developments in commercial or residential real estate.

"When the bottom fell out of real estate, it hit us hard," said McDougall, who was laid off in 2008.
Different challenges
At the convention center, his hours vary greatly: He worked 97 hours in November, and then just 45 in December, typically a slow month for big events.
McDougall likes the activity, the teamwork and the positive energy that comes with helping transform a vast empty space into the venue for a lively convention or trade show drawing tens of thousands of people.
He's also taking classes to expand his computer skills, which he hopes will add to his part-time opportunities.
McDougall and his wife, who tracks case outcomes at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, are still paying on a mortgage and car loan and aren't sure when retirement will be feasible.
At the convention center, workers 65 and older make up 17 percent of the 211-member staff, and are valued for their dependability, positive attitude and ability to work flexible hours.
"They bring a wealth of life experience and that benefits us," said Jeffrey Blosser, the center's chief executive officer (CEO). "They like to be helpful and it shows. We get a lot of great reviews from our clients about how friendly our staff is."
Older workers have a lower unemployment rate than the overall workforce, but when they do lose jobs, they take longer to get new ones.
November data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics put the national unemployment rate for 65-and-older workers at 6.7 percent, below the overall mark of 8.2 percent, not seasonally adjusted.
But senior citizens out of work took an average of 62.7 weeks to find a new job, compared with the overall average of 41.1 weeks.
Paul Valenti, a job counselor with the Seattle Mayor's Office for Senior Citizens, said seniors are scrambling to update their computer and technology skills, required in an increasing number of fields.
But a greater challenge for many, he said, is their unfamiliarity with how the job market has changed and how important networking has become.
Some older workers, he said, have a "tendency to take rejections personally, get discouraged, and then depressed, all of which can lead to giving up on the effort."
Questions about the future of Social Security weigh on those approaching retirement age. As the baby-boom generation exits the working world — many to survive well into their 80s and beyond — a smaller pool of workers will be available to generate the funds paid out in Social Security benefits.
"Full retirement age" for Social Security has gradually increased from 65 for people born before 1938 to 67 for those born in 1960 and later.
"Push" and "pull"
At West Coast Printing on Rainier Avenue South, Ted Tomita, 67, isn't retiring, but has cut back his working hours to between 55 and 60 a week. That's down from 75 to 80 hours earlier in his career.
Such is the lot of the small-business owner. Tomita and his younger brother took over the business their father and uncle started in 1930. They've printed everything from menus to newsletters to stationery to books — even fortunes for fortune cookies.
"I've been doing this so long, it's like breathing," Tomita said. He has a couple of younger employees who can help with heavy lifting, but otherwise he can still do just about anything in the shop.
Although he's never had a specific retirement age in mind, he has tried to save money for when that day comes. "I wish I had saved more," he said.
These days, money is tight. Not only has the recession cut the amount his customers have to spend, but many organizations now do their own small-job printing. "We've been hit pretty hard," Tomita said. "Quite a few print shops have gone under."
The payoff comes when he completes a project like the book he recently printed for The Wing Luke Museum on the history of the venerable Higo Variety Store in the Chinatown International District.
"When someone calls you up and says, 'It's great. You did a beautiful job,' that's what really makes it."
Scott Bailey, an economist with the state Employment Security Department said older people keep working because of "pull" factors, which are reasons to stay on the job, and "push" factors, reasons they can't retire.
"I definitely have both," said Dale Burdett, 78, of Edmonds. He's at work by 7 a.m. every weekday, stocking the dairy section at Petosa's Family Grocer, where he also runs a check stand at busy times.
He's been at the store 15 years, and enjoys being active, useful and connecting with customers. "I've seen too many people retire and then go home and kind of fade away."
Working doesn't bother Burdett. Never has. When he was 12, growing up in Edmonds, he and his two brothers popped popcorn to sell at the ferry dock for 10 cents a bag. As teens, they helped clean up a cafe their mother ran.
Their father worked until 80 as a salesman for Darigold.
Before the grocery-store job, Burdett put in more than 20 years as "rack jobber."
That's the music-business version of a door-to-door salesman who calls on stores with records, tapes and CDs. The job provided a small pension, but Burdett said some of his investments have suffered over the years in volatile stock markets.
His wife retired 20 years ago from work in grocery and department stores.
"This job has really helped keep us above water," Burdett said. And there's another benefit: "My doctor said I look better now than I did three or four years ago."
Denise Klein, CEO of Senior Services, said her agency is hearing from more people older than 65 who are staying on the job — or looking for jobs — to meet basic financial needs.
But besides money, many find a "sense of meaning and purpose" in their careers, Klein said.
Today's 65-year-olds are healthier and will live longer than those of a generation ago, and have a lot to contribute, she said.
For her part, Klein, 69, had no interest in retiring at 65. "I've always thought work was a very positive experience, and why wouldn't I want to do it as long as possible?"
Impact of divorce
Alice Fabre, of Seattle, is 62, but already knows she'll need to work past 65 "just to have something to live on."
Fabre, who is African-American, said news stories about the employment picture often fail to note the higher jobless rates for people of color. Nationally, the unemployment rate for African-American workers was 14.9 percent in November, more than double the rate for whites.
In her last job, Fabre worked in the billing department of a cardiology practice, a job that ended last summer when the doctors joined a hospital.
She has supported herself since a divorce in the 1970s, doing a variety of administrative jobs. Her favorite was a Seattle schools post in the 1980s, coordinating a project to help at-risk teen girls — a job that ended when federal funding ran out, she said.
As she contemplates working past 65, Fabre considers herself fortunate that her 22 years in the Army Reserve and National Guard qualify her for lifelong health care.
She'd love to find a job with a nonprofit social-service agency that has a direct impact in the community. "I want to be vital, vibrant, interacting with people," she said. "I want to keep my mind sharp and alert. I don't want to just deteriorate."
A divorce was also a major career-shaper for LaJeret, sending her to college for the first time at 33 as a mother of five. At that point, she said, "I'd never given a thought to being on my own."
She has since earned a bachelor's degree in sociology and a master's in political science, with a minor in criminology and law. Through a federal program to retrain older workers, she's taken classes at Bellevue College to become certified to teach online
For now, she's working 16 hours a week at a student help desk at the college, and in an unpaid internship, she's working on a curriculum for a criminal-justice class, experience that will help prepare her for teaching.
Her current husband was laid off from Boeing in 1999, has worked a succession of other jobs and is in a warehouse job scheduled to end in February.
LaJeret said that over the years, her jobs have typically been part time or low-paying, so she doubts Social Security will be a big help in her retirement years.
"I've never paid enough in to be able to take enough out," she said. "I'm looking at working for as long as possible."
News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report. 
Jack Broom: E-Mail jbroom@seattletimes.com
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