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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

We're looking this morning at the way the tough economy has hit different groups across America. In a moment, we begin a series we call Living in the Middle, about how middle-class Americans are coping.

MONTAGNE: First, we're going to hear how older Americans are faring. Many have been pushed into unwanted retirement, and yet a new study finds more Americans now expect to work well past retirement age.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden has that story.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: For some, a return to the workplace is a choice. When Kass Clark retired after decades as a public school teacher, it just didn't feel right.

Ms. KASS CLARK (Teacher): There were only so many thrift stores to explore and rooms to clean, and I felt like I was too young to just stay home.

LUDDEN: Still in her 50's, Clark also missed the social interaction. So she found a part-time job with the local utilities department in Marysville, Washington, teaching school children about electricity.

Ms. CLARK: It's all the fun part about teaching and none of the report cards and conferences and staff meetings. So I'm not like, oh, I have to work. It's: I get to work. It's really fun.

LUDDEN: In Alexandria, Virginia, Dibby Johnson says everyone assumed she was retiring when she left a full-time job in human resources. But a few years later, she's back to part-time consulting. She enjoys the sense of self-worth a paycheck brings. And, on a more practical note, there's her family's history of longevity.

Ms. DIBBY JOHNSON (Consultant): If I, in my 60's, am looking at another 30 or 40 years of expenses, then it can't hurt to earn a little more money now.

Ms. ELLEN GALINSKY (Director, Families and Work Institute): This is the new normal. Career flexibility is the new normal.

LUDDEN: Ellen Galinsky heads the Families and Work Institute. In a new study, it finds 20 percent of workers 50 and over have formally retired, then reentered the workplace. Like both Clark and Johnson, many go back on different terms, for fewer hours, and like their new jobs a lot better.

Ms. GALINSKY: They will say things like no more meetings, no more stupid politics, that I don't have to work for people I don't like. In fact, one out of every three people who is formerly working for someone else now is his or her own boss.

LUDDEN: The study calls this a retirement job. Co-researcher Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes says when she first launched the Sloan Center on Aging and Work, that term generated laughs.

Dr. MARCIE PITT-CATSOUPHES (Founder, Sloan Center on Aging and Work): Within five years, it went from being an oxymoron, really a contradiction in terms, to being language that we actually all understand what it means.

LUDDEN: Pitt-Catsouphes says the recession has accelerated a trend well under-way. A striking 75 percent of older employees now say they expect to work during traditional retirement years. For some, this is no choice at all.

Mr. JIM PLATT: I'm 78 now, and I've lost control of my life more than anytime ever.

LUDDEN: Jim Platt says it wasn't supposed to be this way.

Mr. PLATT: We've had a camping trailer for a million years, it seems, and looking forward to Momma and I becoming old timers.

LUDDEN: Platt and his wife were going to leave Utah to spend winters in the Southwestern desert, summers in Big Sky country. But just when Platt was about to retire in his mid-60's, his wife got lung cancer. He ran up $35,000 in debt while caring for her. Now, at age 78, Platt is slowly paying that down by working as a school bus driver.

Mr. PLATT: I've started taking extra runs on the school bus for field trips to pick up more money. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed. So far, I've been blessed with very, very good health.

LUDDEN: More than half those in the Families and Work Institute poll say they returned to work so they could retire more comfortably. Nearly a fifth say they had to do it to make ends meet. In addition to paying down his debt, Platt is also raising a great-grand-daughter. She's 18.

Mr. PLATT: She's looking for work, and we're getting a car running for her and, you know, still playing daddy.

LUDDEN: Unless he becomes disabled or is laid off, Jim Platt says he doesn't believe he'll ever be able to stop working.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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