American Dream deferred: Eyeing retirement, in survival mode

At 60, with only six years until retirement, Walle (rhymes with golly) Waters has survived the recession better than many of his unemployed peers. All it took was a move from Atlanta to Florida. A salary sliced in half. And a diminished lifestyle of rented homes, dollar movie shows and duck-feeding forays to the park.

“I feel like I am the luckiest guy on earth; I’ve got to believe that,” Waters said. “Debra and I have almost made our money. She’s got her retirement. We’ve both got strong 401(k)s and the market’s coming back. So, basically, we’re in a good position to just survive for the next six years.”

Waters can’t shake the tomorrow-is-always-better code of the traveling salesman he was before a corporate merger wiped out his Michigan job more than three years ago. But there was no cause for panic; his wife had just landed a prized job in Peachtree City with a Japanese electronics manufacturer. Atlanta, the New South boom town, beckoned.

Nearly two years of futile job search — 1,000 résumés dispatched, scores of job-networking events, four interviews — downsized Waters’ ambitions. He sold cars. For a month. He applied at Kroger and Publix for $10-an-hour jobs. They wouldn’t hire him. Too old, Waters figured, too qualified.

The Great Recession started three Decembers and ended, technically, two Junes ago, but the nation hasn’t endured such prolonged economic pain since the Great Depression.

Older Americans, those counting the months or years to retirement, have been hit particularly hard.

Nearly 2.2 million people 55 and older were unemployed in November, 18,000 more than October. Joblessness among the 55-plus crowd — 7.3 percent — is particularly troublesome for Waters and others who looked forward to careers winding down, savings piling up and golden years spent basking in family, friends and church.

Retirement, all of a sudden, is something to be feared. Waters is torn between a risky return to the profession he loved — sales — and the leasing job that promises a steady, but unsatisfying cruise to retirement.

“I’d love to get back into the food business; that’s always been my love and passion,” he said. “But I think I’ve found a niche. Obviously, I’m not making the money I used to make. But I’m in that survival mode and getting to a certain point in my life where I can retire.”

Waters accepted a sister’s offer early last year to lease apartments at a 55-plus community in Winter Park. Debra sold the Sharpsburg house a year later and joined him. She’s an assistant property manager nearby.

“I’ve kind of settled in mentally,” Waters said. “I’m no different than a lot of people who had some pretty big jobs. Most of them have taken lesser jobs. I know a lot of guys in Georgia who are still out of work two and a half, three years later. That’s a long time. You go nuts. Literally.”

Waters is without rancor toward a Corporate America that put him out of work, while notching record earnings, and a Political America that can’t create jobs.

“I’m still not bitter; I can’t blame anybody,” he said. “Companies have got to look at their profitability. Making money is not a bad word.”