Feb. 7, 2013 at 12:17 PM ET
CHICAGO - Susan Damour flunked retirement. She tried it at age 64 in 2008 along with her husband, Tim, who was 68. That lasted a year.
Overseas travel, cooking and knitting baby sweaters for the grandchildren weren't enough to satisfy her. Tim, a retired attorney, was happy, but she hated it.
"I'm an extrovert," Damour says. "I draw my strength from being around people, and I crave being in a problem-solving environment. Retirement was like being put in a prison."
Fortunately for her, the Obama administration approached her soon after the 2008 election, inviting her to rejoin the General Services Administration, which manages buildings and procurement for the government.
She had served as regional administrator for the GSA's six-state Rocky Mountain region during the Clinton years, and she returned to the same position near the end of 2009.
Now 69, Damour loves her job, which gets her out of her Denver office frequently and focuses this time around on spurring environmental initiatives in government buildings, something she cares deeply about.
Damour's experience illustrates one of the most surprising recent U.S. economic trends: the increasing presence of women working well beyond traditional retirement age, into their late sixties, seventies and beyond. This will be the fastest-growing workforce segment in the next five years, according to the Department of Labor.
The number of working women over age 65 rose 147 percent from 1977 to 2007; those over 75 rose 172 percent, according to the department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the next five years, the number of older women in the workforce will grow at a rate faster than younger women and almost double that of older men, the bureau said.
Some growth can be attributed to economic travails, but many women say they are making up for lost time after raising children or being shut out of male-dominated jobs in their younger working days. Others can't imagine turning their backs on hard-won career gains.
Rising longevity and the aging baby boom partially explain the trend. Almost 75 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds will be working in 2018, compared with 65 percent in 2008, forecasts Northeastern University economist Barry Bluestone. Likewise, he thinks 30 percent of Americans age 65 to 74 will be working at that point, up from 25 percent in 2008.
Some researchers believe something else is at play. Elizabeth Fideler, a research fellow at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College and the author of "Women Still at Work: Professionals Over Sixty and On the Job," has studied the cohort, and she believes they are making up for slow career starts.
"Many of them faced sex discrimination," she says. These women entered adulthood in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before the women's movement began, when the career choices they faced were narrow and help-wanted ads were segregated by sex.
At that time, most working women were funneled into nursing, teaching, secretarial or social work. Eventually, many switched to other careers. These were hard-won gains.
"They're damned if they're going to give it up now," says Fideler. "They've reached the peak of their careers and don't want to stop, even if their husbands have retired."
This was true for Damour, who graduated college in 1965 with limited career options.
"I remember telling my mother when I was a girl that I wanted to be a judge, and she told me I couldn't do that, because girls aren't lawyers."
She married young, worked in a series of low-paying jobs, had a child and was divorced at age 30. But an active volunteer role in progressive political causes led her into a position in the 1974 Colorado gubernatorial campaign of Dick Lamm. That led indirectly to her first stint at the GSA.
These days, Damour works 40 to 50 hours a week.
"I don't get tired, because I'm a high-energy person, and I love my work," she says.
Does she envision retiring again - ever?
"I'm going to stay in this job as long as they'll keep me, and then I'll re-evaluate" she says.
Ann Kaganoff, 76, is another late bloomer. The Irvine, California, resident began her career as a grade-school teacher. She entered a doctoral program at the University of California at Santa Barbara in reading and language development at age 36.
"My dad said I needed to be a teacher so that I'd always be able to provide for myself," she says. "But in graduate school, I discovered I was a good analytical thinker, and that was exciting."
Kaganoff's career didn't really start taking off until 1985, when at age 50 she started and ran a clinic for children with reading and learning problems at the University of California at Irvine.
"I was learning new things constantly," she says.
In 1992 the clinic closed, a victim of budget cuts at the university. Today, Kaganoff feels that she's at the peak of her professional growth with a private therapy practice in Irvine, and she doesn't see herself stepping away anytime soon.
"The experiences are so cumulative," she says. "Every time I walk into a meeting, I realize the wealth of background I have to draw upon."
Fideler fits the profile. She's 70 and already at work on a follow-up book on the second-fastest-growing age group in the labor force: men over age 65.
Older men keep working for the same career achievement and income rewards that motivate women. But perhaps Fideler will find that men simply grow tired of watching their wives leave for work every morning, and of spending the day by themselves.
Copyright 2013 Thomson Reuters.