For Passion or For Money, More Seniors Keep Working

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For Passion or For Money, More Seniors Keep Working
Stateline Sept20
Wilber Ruiz, left, hoped to retire to his native Peru by now, but at 67 he’s still at work retrieving carts and greeting customers at a Giant supermarket in Ashburn, Virginia.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

ASHBURN, Va. — At 76, Anne Doane is still stocking shelves in a Wegmans here, leaning to fill a display with hairbrushes as Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” plays over the store’s sound system.

“I never saved throughout my life, so therefore I have to do this,” Doane said. “And because I like it. I want to get out of the house. I want to talk to people. And I need the money.”

More U.S. workers are working after turning 65, both out of financial necessity and to stay busy, a trend the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics sees increasing over the next 10 years. The bureau projects the share of seniors working or actively looking for jobs to rise from 19.6% in 2018 to 23.3% in 2028, nearly double the rate of 1998, when it was less than 12%.

More than 165,000 seniors are working in grocery stores, earning an average of about $31,000 a year. About half of the more than 9 million workers 65 and older are in retail, health care, business services or education, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data and a Stateline analysis of Current Population Survey microdata.

Some of the highest-paying jobs for seniors are in colleges and universities, where the average salary for the age group is more than $93,000 a year, and in charity and advocacy groups, where the average for the age group is more than $107,000 a year.

It may be a shock for people to find that they can’t get by on Social Security alone, especially for those who claim their benefits before they turn 70. Social Security currently maxes out at $2,209 a month for those who file at 62 and $3,770 for those who file at 70.


Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Stateline analysis. Note: South Dakota did not have data for 2018.


It’s particularly tough when the cost of living is high in areas such as Ashburn in Loudoun County, a fast-growing Washington, D.C., suburb where more than a quarter of people 65 and older hold jobs, according to recent census data.

“[Working] by older age groups bottomed out in the mid-1990s, when Social Security was more generous and defined-benefit pensions were more common,” said Brian Asquith, an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Michigan. Growth in the number of older workers since then has been slower than expected, he said.

Even union jobs may not provide much of a pension now. Venorica Tucker, 70, has had a union job as a banquet server for 30 years, commuting from suburban Maryland to the U.S. House of Representatives.

She works for a catering contractor, putting in long days that extend from early-morning breakfasts to evening receptions. Her Food and Beverage Workers Union has a pension plan but it’s a lump sum of less than $20,000, she said.

“I had all these ideas about how one could live well [after age 65], but those ideas didn’t pan out,” said Tucker, who’s been working similar jobs since the early 1960s, when she was 12, and currently holds a second job as a bartender.

“I should have saved more — I always saw people in my family who were in a needy situation, and my friends. They needed help and I could do it, so I did do it,” Tucker said. “Sometimes I did that at the cost of paying my own bills and saving.”

Immigrants often have little choice but to keep working after 65, said 67-year-old Wilber Ruiz, who works retrieving carts at a Giant supermarket in Ashburn, Virginia. He had once hoped to be retired at this age in his native Peru, reading literature and writing poetry.

“Possibly for a certain type of worker, when they’re older they need to do something to stay occupied,” Ruiz said in Spanish. “But under the conditions that most Latinos are in, it’s to pay for an apartment, pay for a car to get to work. They survive. That’s all.”

States are scrambling to fund more job-training programs for seniors, especially in Vermont, where 26% of older people held jobs in 2018, the highest rate in the country, up from 23% in 2013, according to a Stateline analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Vermont has a combination of a labor shortage and a large senior population that draws more older residents into the workforce, said Mathew Barewicz, an economist at the Vermont Department of Labor. Some are also working because they love their jobs.

“It is a passion thing for me,” said Diane Dalmasse, 71, director of the Vermont Division of Vocational Rehabilitation in Waterbury. She has a state pension that would allow her to retire, but she doesn’t want to do that yet.

“We make a difference and I just love the work,” Dalmasse said. “Work is how people are measured in this country.”

The employment rate among older workers is increasing fastest in Colorado, Minnesota and Hawaii, where the additional numbers of older workers seeking jobs may be raising unemployment rates despite more job creation, as older workers see an opening in a tight labor market and possible higher wages.

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Minnesota and North Carolina may already be in a recession.

“In Colorado people are working longer because they can,” said Brian Lewandowski, associate director of the research division at the University of Colorado. “We are healthier than average, and this is a state with a lot of white-collar jobs. If you have a desk job as an accountant or an attorney, you can easily keep doing this.”

State programs to train older workers with federal funds are overwhelmed by applications from people who can’t get in, said Pat Elmer, president of Associates for Training and Development, a nonprofit that operates training programs in Vermont, Maine, New York and Pennsylvania.

There are 2,000 trainees in those states. The program pays minimum wage to people 55 and older to work for nonprofits and public organizations, such as schools and hospitals, while they gain skills and references for the open job market.

Many more people want the training but can’t get in because of waitlists or income restrictions — the federal program that funds it, the Senior Community Service Employment Program, requires participants to have incomes no more than 125% of the poverty level, currently $16,910 for a two-person family.

As the demand for job training among older residents grows, Vermont is considering other options. One program that could be expanded to help meet the need, Progressive Employment, allows workers of all ages to start working in new industries as trainees while they build skills, Elmer said.

“So many people are in this situation. They don’t feel like they can retire because they don’t have the funds,” Elmer said. “In the past, people could take minimum-wage jobs. Now people need updated skills, because they can’t get by on minimum wage and Social Security.”

In Washington, D.C.’s affluent Northern Virginia suburbs, some government workers find they can extend their working lives with freelance work long after retirement age. David Balducchi, 70, retired from the U.S. Department of Labor at 62 but still has plenty of work as a freelance researcher and writer, including a study of policy needs for an aging workforce last year.

“For me it’s part of my own personal journey, working on projects that interest me, things that were important to me,” Balducchi said.

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In Arlington County, Virginia, more than a fourth of people 65 and older hold jobs, according to census figures. About 7,000 of the county’s 31,000 older workers earn more than $140,000 in professional services and consulting, according to Kurt Larrick, assistant director of the county’s department of human services. Another 1,500 are in retail, making an average of around $40,000.

“This is the new norm. People are going to continue working until they can’t, physically, or they can afford to stop,” Larrick said. The area’s Regional Workforce Council provides training for older workers, offering up to $3,500 toward certification in any in-demand profession, such as the health care, technology or culinary fields.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that as older people return to the job market, younger people 16 to 24 are not seeking jobs as much as they once did — partly because they’re staying in school, as the long-term benefits of college degrees become more obvious. But part of the reason is that older workers now hold the kinds of jobs that entry-level workers once did, the retail jobs like those held by Ruiz and Doane.

When the recession hit 10 years ago, some younger people found it difficult to get jobs because entry-level positions were being filled by older workers displaced by layoffs. But in today’s tight labor market, experts see little damage to younger workers by the graying of the workforce.

“The mature workers are doing a lot of retail sales and customer service,” Elmer said. “These were jobs that were empty before the older workers showed up. The grocers and the tourism people were out there begging for people to take these jobs.”

Doane, the Ashburn grocery store worker, had a 26-year career in data entry for IBM after graduating from high school in Rochester, New York, in 1961. The type of machines she used, one for entering numbers, another for the alphabet, are now on display at a museum in Washington, D.C., where her children saw them on a visit and said, “Mom, are you that old?”

In high school in Rochester, she worked part-time as a cashier for Wegmans.

“When they [the Wegmans in Ashburn] asked me, ‘Why do you want to work here?’ I said, ‘I started at Wegmans and that’s where I want to finish,’” Doane said.

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