Working Late: In Tough Economy, Retirement Gets Pushed Back

As more Americans begin to feel the financial strains of the weak economy, the retirement age is creeping up. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin speaks with NPR's Ina Jaffe about her Morning Edition series, "Working Late."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. This is how the American dream used to be: if you worked hard, you could save money to put your kids through college and have enough left over after your working years were through to settle down and retire when you were ready to do so. But the average age at which Americans expect to retire keeps rising - from the age of 60 in the mid-1990s to age 67 now. That's according to a Gallup survey. For a growing number of older people, continuing to work past so-called retirement age is the new reality. And it's something NPR's Ina Jaffe is exploring in a series called Working Late. She started the series on MORNING EDITION and it will continue over the next month. Ina joins us now from NPR West. Hey, Ina.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Hi.

MARTIN: So, we know the recession has obviously taken a toll on people's plans for retirement and their actual retirement accounts. Have you been able to measure the impact at all?

JAFFE: Well, I haven't measured it but a lot of government agencies and so on have measured it. And people are working because they need the money, by and large. Retirement savings took a huge hit during the recession. It lost about $2.8 trillion in value. Also, about a quarter of adults over 50 say they ran through all of their retirement savings during the recession.

MARTIN: And I understand this coming week you'll be profiling someone in that exact situation.

JAFFE: Yes. Her name is Janet Sims Wood. She's 67. And she retired from her job as a research librarian at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She wanted to devote herself full-time to her own research in African-American women's history. But she lost $100,000 from her retirement savings. So, now she's working part-time in the library at Prince Georges Community College in Maryland. I have to say, Rachel, despite these setbacks, she may be the most optimistic person I have ever met in my life.

JANET SIMS WOOD: I have faith that things will work out. I don't care how bad they are. It's going to work out. You just keep moving. You do not stop.

JAFFE: You know, Rachel, I should add that this phenomenon of people working later in life didn't begin with the recession. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says it's been building for decades. And the percentage of people over 65 who are still working is about double what it was in the late 1970s.

MARTIN: So, double that number. How many people is that? How many people are we talking about?

JAFFE: About a third of those between 65 and 70 are still on the job. And overall, about 18 percent of all Americans 65 and up are still working.

MARTIN: So, if older people aren't working just because they're in financial distress, what else is driving them to say on the job?

JAFFE: Basically, people are living longer and staying healthier. And most of the people I talked to for the Working Late series were still on the job both because they needed the money and liked working. And that was certainly the case for 73-year-old John David. He's a fitness instructor in New York City for people over 60.

JOHN DAVID: The things that you need at my age, the things that you need are entirely different than what you need when you're 35 and, you know, you're thinking about your beach body and sexual prowess or whatever. The pragmatism is there. It is can I walk to the store? Can I be the person I want to be.

MARTIN: So, we just heard there a 73-year-old fitness instructor, which kind of breaks down stereotypes of how we think of older workers. Ina, what other kind of careers are welcoming to older employees?

JAFFE: You know, there's something about politics that seems to make people want to stay on the job for a long time. And in a couple of weeks we're going to meet an 85-year-old state senator from Wisconsin. His name's Fred Risser. He was first elected to the Wisconsin state legislature in 1956. It makes him the longest-serving state lawmaker in the country.

STATE SENATOR FRED RISSER: I don't have Facebook pages. I don't tweet. I don't know how to text. Computer-wise, I don't feel confident even to use email. I'm from the old school and I still write things down.

JAFFE: And, Rachel, before you start thinking of him as an old codger...

MARTIN: No, I was thinking good for him. He still writes things down.

JAFFE: He had stacks of yellow legal pads in his office, and he seems to know what's on every single one of them. He also does about 2,000 miles a year on his bike, and he prides himself on never taking the elevator to his office in the Capitol, but always taking the 55 stairs.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Ina Jaffe, speaking with us from NPR West. And you're invited to share your stories with us at npr.org/WorkingLate, or on Twitter #NPRWorkingLate. Ina, thanks so much.

JAFFE: Thank you, Rachel.

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