2009-04-02 / Features

Older Workers Are Delaying Retirement

By DEB RIECHMANN ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

WASHINGTON—In these scary economic times, older workers are putting off their retirement and hanging on to a paycheck.

Some retirees struggling to make ends meet are scanning help-wanted ads for the first time in years.

About a week ago, Jeff Rollison, a 60-year-old employee at the General Motors Corp.'s plant in Lordstown, Ohio, told the automaker he was retiring. Now, he's changed his mind.

Rollison is worried that something could happen to his retiree health benefits before he would become eligible for Medicare at age 65. Rollison is the sole breadwinner for him and his wife. But he also is concerned about his grown children, including a son with three kids who is being laid off at a neighboring GM plant.

An AARP survey of 1,100 people conducted in December showed that 16 percent of people 45 and older had postponed retirement because of the economic downturn. But the percentage of people planning to delay retirement shot up to 57 percent among respondents who were working or looking for a job and had lost money in the market during the past year.

The average retirement age, which was between 62 and 63 for men and women last year, is on the rise, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute.

The recession is not the only reason people are working longer. Life expectancy rates are going up. So, too, is the age at which workers are entitled to receive full Social Security benefits.

Mark Lassiter, a spokesman at the Social Security Administration, said that while some older people stay on the job during economic downturns, others turn to Social Security because their jobs are eliminated. The agency reported a nearly 9 percent increase in retirement claims between the 2008 budget year and 2009, which ended Sept. 30.

An increase was expected because baby boomers are starting to retire, but the jump was higher than anticipated because of the recession, he said.

Some companies are looking to cut costs and keep younger, less-expensive workers. Yet some businesses are happy to keep experienced workers.

"Experienced workers produce more per hour with less supervision than youngins'," said William Dunkelberg, chief economist for the National Federation of Independent Business and an economics professor at Temple University. "The elderly may, in fact, be cheaper than teeny boppers" because they require less training, seek part-time work and will accept lower wages.

Currently, about 17 percent of the work force is 65 or older—a share on the rise since the late 1990s.

At 74, Beverly London of Big Run, Pa., thought her days of working were over. She and her husband sold to their son the family retail carpet store they operate in their rural community and settled into retirement. They felt secure with thousands of dollars of stock in a bank. But the bank failed and the value of their stock shrank from six to four figures.

"We were thinking about winter and I was worried about how I was going to keep my house warm. I had to start putting resumes in," London said, recounting how a younger worker got one retail job she applied for. She eventually found a job through Experience Works, a national nonprofit organization that receives money from the Senior Community Service Employment Program, a Labor Department program.

London works part time at Pennsylvania CareerLink, a state unemployment office in nearby Punxsutawney, Pa. She is happy and healthy, but knows her work days are numbered.

"I'm trying not to dwell on the future. I'm just glad I can write a check for the $400 gas bill," she said. "We'll never be able to build up a nest egg again. We didn't have a fancy life, but we took a golf vacation one week out of the year. There's no golf vacations anymore."

Darnell Holopirek, 62, of Great Bend, Kan., and her husband are postponing retirement in hopes the economy will turn around. Part of their decision is personal. They don't have enough funds to retire. But she also is motivated as director of institutional advancement at Barton Community College Foundation to stay on the job and help the school as the recession hits its investments and donations.

"It's a little bit scary to us when we see people who have retired now looking to having to go back to work," she said. "We sure don't want that to happen to us. We'd rather keep the good jobs that we have that we're happy with, rather than retiring and then in a year or so, finding out that we just can"t stay retired."

When Randall Gainforth, 55, of Tampa, Fla., retired from his county job in September 2007 after 33 years as a children and family mental health counselor, he took his $130,000 in retirement savings and put it in stocks. He figured that with the help of a broker, he could make more than the 3 percent to 4 percent he was guaranteed by the Florida state retirement system. Today, that account is worth only about half, and the mental health work he started doing in semiretirement is drying up.

Gainforth is looking for a job in the medical industry. "I need to work until that money gets built back up," he said.

The net worth of U.S. households fell by 9 percent over the last three months in 2008. It was the biggest quarterly decline since record keeping began in 1951.

"I think most people are scared to death, first of all, about the prospects for the market," said Kelly Campbell, a financial adviser and principal of Campbell Wealth Management in Fairfax, Va. "They feel they've been let down by the market, by their broker and/or by the their government. They're paralyzed right now because they don't know what to do."

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