Ella Washington, 83, works as a receptionist three days a week at Holly Hall Apartments, a housing complex for disabled and elderly people in Silver Spring, Md.
Ella Washington, 83, works as a receptionist three days a week at Holly Hall Apartments, a housing complex for disabled and elderly people in Silver Spring, Md. Emily Bogle/NPR
At 75, many people imagine they'll be retired and spending their time playing cards or on a golf course. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of working seniors is actually on the rise. In fact, it's more than doubled since 1990.
Ella Washington decided to go back to work at 83. Today, she's a receptionist in training at a senior living home outside Washington, D.C. She's hoping it will be a stepping stone to a real job, which she's been looking for since 2005.
"People say, 'Why do you want to go out and work?' But my question is: Why sit at home?" Washington says. "If you're doing nothing, you're gonna get bored, you're gonna get to a place where you can hardly move. I have to keep moving. I cannot stop."
But that hasn't been easy. Washington says she's gone on job interviews but suspects employers don't want to hire someone older.
"Older people can still move," she says. "They're gonna come to work. They're not going to the club and hang out half the night and come back and say, 'Well, I'm not going in tomorrow.' Maybe some older people do go to the club, but I don't."
That's how Washington ended up in an older workers job-training program run by Quintin Doromal and the Jewish Council for the Aging. Doromal says huge numbers of older workers are vying to join his yearlong program, which offers part-time work and pays minimum wage.
According to Doromal, "We have a waiting list of 193 participants." He says he eventually hopes to place 20 percent of the trainees like Ella Washington in permanent jobs.
'I Gotta Go Back To Work'
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force participation rate among seniors has nearly doubled, from 4.3 percent in 1990 to 7.5 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, the unemployed rate in that group has also increased, from 2.3 percent in 1990 to 5.6 percent in 2011. That may sound like a contradiction, but it actually isn't. It means more seniors are looking for work, and while some are succeeding, more and more are not.
Some of them end up asking Kevin Ferguson for help. Ferguson is education director at Adventist Community Services, a food, clothing and job-training volunteer organization near Washington.
"Prior to two years ago, almost never did I meet an older person coming in asking for services," Ferguson says. "They all need something right now to try to develop their skills because each and every one says, 'I gotta go back to work.' "
The half-dozen job-seeking seniors interviewed for this story downplayed their financial motivation. Nearly all of them said they wanted to work for the mental and social stimulation. This response doesn't surprise Ferguson.
"After 50 years, a half a century of doing for themselves, now they gotta walk in and say, 'Hey, I gotta have some help,' " Ferguson says. "Imagine what that does to your ego."
'Life Is To Learn'
Nirwair Saini recently moved to the U.S. from India to be closer to his children. Money, he admits, is part of his motivation for starting a new career at 70.
"I need money," he says. "My wife and me, we have to take care of ourselves, you know? We can't depend on the children all the time."
Saini spent three decades as a mechanical engineer on merchant marine ships before retiring. He says looking for a new job in the U.S. feels a lot like starting over, since skills and certifications don't transfer. So now, under Ferguson's tutelage, Saini is learning how to maintain and refurbish computers. Using old parts purchased at a secondhand store, Saini has already rebuilt three machines.
Training and classes can make for a long day, though. Saini has to catch a bus and often isn't home until 10:30 at night. But that's no problem, he says.
"For me, I don't consider the age because you can learn something," he says. "Always, life is to learn."
Old people are like old machines, he says. They may work a little slower, but they're still very useful.