Image: Phil Schlosser
Jim Seida  /
Phil Schlosser, 75, always thought he’d stop working in his mid-60s. But the closer he got to age 65, the more he said he wondered, “Do I really want to retire?”
By Allison Linn Senior writer
updated 7/29/2009 11:25:44 AM ET 2009-07-29T15:25:44

At an age when many people start envisioning retirement, John Hanna was thinking about how he could keep on working.

“I didn’t want to retire,” he recalls.

Hanna, who is now 83, held on to his full-time job as an insurance broker until finally retiring at age 72. But without work, the Lititz, Pa., resident soon found that he was bored and restless.

And so, about a year later, Hanna went back to work as a notary for a car auction company. He continues to work two days a week and has no intention of giving it up.

“I see what happens to guys that retire and just sit around,” Hanna said. “You know, we turn to mush.”

A combination of good health, economic necessity and the other rewards of work are pushing some Americans to stay in the work force long past traditional retirement age. About 7  percent of people age 75 or older were in the labor force as of June, up from about 5 percent a decade ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That translates to more than 1.1 million people working past age 74, up from 750,000 a decade ago.

Jim Toedtman, editor of the AARP Bulletin, said he thinks what had been an unusual phenomenon is becoming more commonplace because the recession and stock market drop means more people are financially unprepared to leave their jobs at normal retirement age.

But, he said, many people are staying in the work force because they are living longer, healthier lives and want to stay busy.

“The prospect of 30 years of golf does have sort of a dulling effect,” Toedtman said.

‘I just want to be doing something’
Non-retirees such as Hanna say the money is nice, especially now that the stock market  tumble has heavily damaged most retirement accounts. But many say they are equally motivated by other factors, such as staying active, maintaining a social life and simply enjoying the work.

“I’m not going to ever retire … because I don’t want to,” said Edward Money, 76. Money works as a greeter at a Wal-Mart in Middletown, Del., although he could afford to live on his pension and other income.

“I get up every morning and I feel good, and I just want to always be doing something,” he said.

Toedtman said some people are also staying on the job because there is simply nobody to replace them. That includes people in very specialized medical fields or those who run their own small business.

The general trend through much of the 20th century was toward retiring earlier, said David Blau, an economics professor at Ohio State University. But that trend reversed course in the late 1980s, and people have been waiting longer to retire ever since, he said.

Blau’s research has shown that the majority of older workers are well-educated people who are doing something they want to keep doing. He said another important factor is job flexibility that allows older workers to work part-time or follow a less rigid schedule.

You don’t necessarily need a glamorous job to want to keep working. Ashton Applewhite, who is writing a book about people over age 80 who work, said most people she’s talked to say they keep working because they enjoy what they do, even if the job doesn’t seem fun and creative to others.

“It gives them a sense of who they are in the world, which may be a continuation of who they were when they were younger, and it makes them feel that they are contributing” she said.

‘Do I really want to retire?’
Phil Schlosser, 75, always thought he’d stop working in his mid-60s. But the closer he got to age 65, the more he said he wondered, “Do I really want to retire?”

Ten years later, Schlosser still works full-time in accounts receivable for a low-income apartment complex in Seattle. The job gives structure to his life and offers him health benefits as well as a comfortable financial cushion.

Schlosser has taken some vacations, including a three-week trip to Europe a few years back. If he retired, he said he might pursue his other passion, creative writing. But like many older workers, Schlosser said he’s grateful to have found an employer that has been supportive of him working into his later years. He hopes to keep at it until he's at least 80.

There are challenges to being an older worker. Schlosser walks 10 blocks to work, but he doesn’t like to stay at the office past dark because he worries about his safety. He said if he developed serious health problems, he probably would stop working.

Older workers also are sometimes limited in the jobs they can do, especially if they have historically held more physical jobs or find that they aren’t up to speed on current technology.

Applewhite said it also can be difficult for some older workers to accept that as they age their job responsibilities may have to change. She interviewed one high-ranking executive who said the hardest thing he’s had to do is learn when to keep his mouth shut and make way for the next generation of leaders.

“You do have to accept that your authority is going to diminish and be realistic about the constraints of age,” Applewhite said.

Also, it can take much longer for an older worker to find new employment after a job loss. That could become a bigger problem for older workers as the recession drags on and employers cut staff to save money.

Possible layoff looming
Ina Langfeldt, 79, got her first job in a factory when she was 16, and even though it was hard, physical work, she liked it.

After staying home to raise her children, Langfeldt worked for a school superintendent’s office and then had a job doing food demonstrations at Costco. About 13 years ago, she started working part-time as a clerk for a bank data center.

A widow since 1980, she said she relies on the job for the income, but she also likes to work because it keeps her active and social.Recently, Langfeldt was told that the facility she works at is closing. A job loss would be a financial blow, since she relies on her paycheck for property taxes and to keep up with other bills for the house she’s lived in for 50 years. Without that extra income, she worries that she’ll have to sell her house.

“I like to work. I don’t want to really stay home, but I don’t know who else is going to hire me at 79,” she said.

Langfeldt also has some limitations: she can’t stand on her feet all day anymore, and she isn’t so great with a computer. But, she said, she’d like to keep working.

“I’ve been saying to myself, 'You can’t be working in your 80s,' you know, but I was just trying not to think about it,” she said. “I don’t feel like I’m going to be in my 80s, but the numbers are there.”

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