More Americans working past traditional retirement age

Wednesday , January 04, 2012 - 2:23 PM

Exchange Nurse Retires

In this photo taken Dec. 29, 2011, Dorothe Canty, 89, talks about working as a nurse since the mid-...

Jack Broom

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, Wash., has kept working part-time office jobs while training for something better. She can't afford to retire.

Americans, in ever-increasing numbers, are staying on the job past the traditional "retirement age" of 65. The percentage of senior citizens who are employed has jumped in recent decades, from 11.4 in 1990 to 16.2 percent in 2010, Census Bureau data show. The trend is expected to accelerate as more baby boomers approach retirement age.

In some professions, such as teaching, veteran workers staying on the job reduce 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.

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 vary. 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.

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. "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 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.

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.

Denise Klein, CEO of Senior Services, said her agency is hearing from more people older than 65 who are working -- or looking for jobs -- to meet basic financial needs.

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. Besides money, many find a "sense of meaning and purpose" in their careers.

(Contact Jack Broom at jbroom@seattletimes.com. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com)

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