Director of the nonprofit Breast Cancer Survivors Network Janet Beebe (R) works with volunteer LaVerne Gaither, who is also an airline employee, at the nonprofit’s office in Peachtree City. The two women are still working past retirement age, part of a surge of older workers staying on the job or going back to work. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: Steve Schaefer
Photo: Steve Schaefer

Need or desire keeping record number of older workers on the job

The American workforce is graying.

Baby boomers are staying on their jobs longer and finding new work after retirement in record numbers. The surge in older workers can be attributed to multiple factors, such as the disappearance of company pensions, the increasing age to collect full Social Security and growing lifespans.

It will change the workforce and economy for decades to come.

The trillions of post-retirement dollars earned will circulate through cruise ship companies, restaurants and retailers. Less-affluent, still-working seniors are likely to use fewer government social benefits. And older workers will provide both a steady stream of labor in the tight market, as well as compete with younger workers.

Though many are happy to be still on the job, others are working because they have to.

LaVerne Gaither belongs to the former group and Janet Beebe to the latter.

The two share background stories of being cancer survivors. They work elbow to elbow when Gaither, who is a United Airlines international flight attendant, volunteers at the Peachtree City nonprofit that Beebe runs, the Breast Cancer Survivors’ Network.

Gaither can’t envision herself retired. Though she is celebrating her 40th year with United, she’s still regularly flying to destinations such as Europe and China. For her, an active life of enjoyable work, helping others, travel, social activities — and the freedom that a full-time income imparts — is too good to give up.

“We are not that grandparent that wants to sit at home watching the grandchildren,” said Gaither, 65. “I will work until God tells me not to. He is going to have to give me some kind of sign.”

Beebe, 70, loves her “from-the-heart work” as the nonprofit’s paid chief executive officer, providing and coordinating services for poor cancer patients. But every morning when she wakes up, or when her knee that needs surgical replacement aches, she thinks about retiring.

She and her husband James’ dreams of calling it quits at 65 and going on an Alaskan cruise melted away 14 years ago, when he turned 58. James started showing signs of Parkinson’s disease and retired early as a sales manager for a large paper firm. Three years ago, she had to put him in a care facility that costs almost $6,000 a month.

“I am working because I have to,” Beebe said. “We are burning through our 401(k) and Social Security checks.”

Each day, 10,000 boomers hit 65 

Wallace Knox continues working despite being older than 65.

In 2000, about 1 in 10 Americans 65-years-old to 74-years-old worked. Today, it is about 1 in 4 and expected to grow to 1 in 3 in roughly six years. The total number of workers in that age group will have risen from 4.1 million in 2000 to more than 14 million in 2027, according to a 2018 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Among those 75 and older, the number of workforce participants will double from 1 in 10 to 1 in 5 by 2026.

The average life expectancy, which was 70.8 in 1970, now stands at 78.6.

The downside to a longer life is that people need to save more for retirement. If they haven’t saved, they must keep working. Health bills eventually come due, and they are more expensive than ever.

Fear of those expenses is pushing some boomers to stay on the job to keep company-sponsored health insurance. Though they qualify for Medicare at 65, any monthly premiums for additional coverage slice away at fixed incomes, and Medicare doesn’t cover the kind of help James Beebe needs.

Other boomers are healthy, but still need to work to stay financially afloat. Wallace Knox, 66, worked in construction and landscaping most of his life, jobs that left him with no pension and little opportunity to save.

He still works three hours a day, seven days a week, collecting grocery shopping carts for the Wayfield grocery store on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Atlanta. He collects the carts from the multi-acre parking lot and surrounding neighborhoods, lifting them into the bed of his pickup for return to the store.

“If I had enough money, I would sit down every day,” Knox said while pulling blue shopping carts from the bed of his pickup. “I wouldn’t get up for anybody.”

In a 2016 poll by Boston University’s Center for Retirement Research, about half of older workers said they need extra income to maintain their lifestyles. Thirty years ago, about 1 in 3 needed it.

Geoff Sanzenbacher, the center’s director of research, said it’s more difficult to say how many must work just to keep some of life’s basics in place. Poverty rates for older Americans are hard to pin down because of difficulty in tracking benefits such as payments from 401(k)s. But the range of seniors in poverty is probably between 9% to 14%, he said. Federal guidelines say a single person living on less than $12,490 a year is poor. For a couple, it’s $16,910.

The Social Security Administration estimated in its most recent count in 2014 that Social Security retirement provided 90% or more of income for about 21% of couples older than 65, and for about 43% for singles. This year, the average retirement check is $1,461 a month, or $17,532 yearly. Many people dependent on that income alone spent lives working jobs in factories, service industries or manual labor, where retirement benefits are few and lower pay makes it difficult to save.

The age to collect a full amount of Social Security retirement is also rising, keeping many in the workforce longer. Those born before 1960 can begin their full draw at 66 and some months. Those born that year or later must wait to 67. Those who begin to collect their checks earlier than the full retirement date forfeit up to 30% of their income.

And the Great Recession wiped out retirement nest eggs for some.

“Many of them planning to retire had to remain in the workforce to try to catch up,” said Gary Officer, the CEO of Senior Service America, a nonprofit specializing in older workforce development.

July 23, 2019 Kennesaw - Gary Smith (left), 73, helps a visitor with checking-in at CryoLife, where Smith works as a security officer, in Kennesaw on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. Gary Smith, 73, retired for two years but came back to work at 69, working for Allied Universal, the security company. The future of workers is looking a lot grayer. Older workers are the fastest growing segment of the employed in Georgia and the U.S. The age group adding the largest percentage of workers is those 65 to 74. 75+ are growing fast. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

More than half of surveyed older workers also had been pushed out of jobs after they were 50 years old, eroding income and benefits they were depending on to get them through retirement, according to research by ProPublica and the Urban Institute. Those numbers are based on the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study, which is tracking 20,000 older adults.

Officer said working-class people face a double challenge. They are trying to hang onto jobs at a time when machines are replacing many of them.

“So you are talking about cashiers, bank tellers, fast food workers, and those jobs are disappearing fast,” he said.

Automation will continue to eat jobs, including gig-economy work such as driving for Lyft, he added. Ford says it will have self-driving cars by 2021.

Rodney York, who lives in Atlanta, retired at 68. But at 72, he is starting to look for a warehousing job like the one he worked much of his life, driving a fork lift. Though warehousing is a growing Georgia industry, the industry is quickly automating, moving more goods with fewer workers. He said a son is helping him fill out online applications.

“After I pay my rent, get a few groceries, it’s gone” he said of his Social Security check. “Then you got to wait until the next month. It’s tough.”

Help or hindrance?

As the U.S. population grows proportionately older, seniors could be needed in the workforce to keep the economy healthy. Today, there are 2.8 workers for every Social Security recipient. In 16 years, that will drop to 2.2 workers for every recipient.

With the U.S. unemployment rate at a half-century low, older workers are in greater demand than usual. A nonprofit arm of the National Association of Manufacturers released a July report on the importance of keeping older workers on the job as industries face a dearth of skilled employees.

Not that older workers don’t still face age discrimination. Prejudice against older workers is more than a suspicion, says a 2017 Senate report on the aging workforce. One study it cites sent out resumes for 40,000 applicants of all ages applying for 13,000 jobs. Call back rates for older workers, especially women, was “significantly lower” than for younger workers.

Some companies won’t hire older workers for fear the technology revolution has left them behind, or that they won’t be good team members for younger workers, or fit into current culture, according to Ramona Schindelheim, the editor-in-chief at WorkingNation, a nonprofit addressing the challenges of the changing economy and nature of work.

“People hire people that look like them,” she said. “They want to know you are a guy they can go out and have a beer with.”

She believes companies also don’t want to put training money into workers they believe may not stay on the job long.

A Boston College study found that some older than 50 do lose capacity to process new information as quickly as young people. But older people retain “crystallized knowledge,” skills and information picked up over years of experience, the 2016 study found.

Allied Universal, which provides security officers to companies across the nation, doesn’t have an age limit on workers. Don Tefft Jr., chief human resources officer, said the company sees the value of older workers passing on knowledge and mentoring younger workers.

“More experienced candidates have better success at displaying calm authority and can de-escalate situations,” he said, adding they have “life skills” younger workers are still developing.

Gary Smith, 73, an Allied employee working at Cryolife in Kennesaw, learned his craft in the military, worked afterward for security agencies, and retired in 2009.

“For two years, I played golf,” he said. “Then I got a little bored.”

He went back to work and puts in about 30 hours a week, though he said he doesn’t have to.

“I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t work,” Smith said.

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