AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Here's something you either know now or will find out in time: retirement is not what it used to be. A new survey out today says barely half of Americans are confident they'll be able to retire comfortably. There are a lot of contributing factors: improvements in health and longevity, the decline of the pension, the rise of the 401(k) and the volatility of the markets.

CORNISH: Given those realities, older Americans these days continue to work during what used to be known as retirement. And some companies are using that trend to their advantage.

NPR's Ina Jaffe paid a visit to a company that embraces something called phased, or gradual retirement.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Walking into a laboratory at the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California feels more like being in a hardware store than a "Star Trek" movie. But these tools are more than nuts and bolts.

JOHN HURRELL: This is one of the pieces of equipment which will enable us to get down pretty well to atomic level sensitivity.

JAFFE: Says physicist John Hurrell, as he gazes at a transmission electron microscope. Hurrell is 75 years old. Technically, he's been retired for 10 years. Now he works part time, just another one of the scientists here who try to make sure that multimillion dollar satellites stay in orbit and do what they're supposed to. Hurrell is a taciturn guy, but getting his hands on a space gizmo that's not working, that makes him smile.

HURRELL: Most prized component we can be having here is a failed part, with a view of making sure that future parts will not fail like this.

JAFFE: Hurrell is what's known at the Aerospace Corporation as a retiree casual. They may be regular part-timers or just come in for special projects. It's up to the company. But at any given time, they make up about 10 percent of the workforce.

STEVEN MOSS: It is a significant factor in our ability to meet our customers' needs.

JAFFE: Says Steven Moss, Hurrell's supervisor. Experience counts, says Moss, especially in an emergency.

MOSS: There may be hundreds of possibilities about why a device failed. So people like John that have seen these kinds of problems over and over again, bring a significant amount of value to the table. The customers still call for him by name.

JAFFE: It's not just experienced scientists like Hurrell who are valued at the Aerospace Corporation. Charlotte Morrison, head of human relations, says that the company offers casual work to retirees from every department, including her own.

CHARLOTTE MORRISON: One of them does the orientation every Monday for the new hires that come in. Another one does, you know, some clerical work. Works well.

JAFFE: The Aerospace Corporation has been offering part time work to retirees for about 30 years. But only a small percentage of companies have formal programs like this one. Anna Rappaport, head of a Society of Actuaries committee on post-retirement needs, says most workers just have to figure out something on their own.

ANNA RAPPAPORT: Some people will work for same employer. A lot of people will work for a different employer. Some will be in the same field, some people will do something entirely different.

JAFFE: About a third of people between the ages of 65 and 70 are still employed, according to census figures. The most obvious reason is that they want or need the money. But surveys suggest older Americans are equally interested in working because they find it satisfying.

ELIZABETH FIDELER: You're making a contribution. You're making a difference.

JAFFE: That's Elizabeth Fideler. She's a research fellow at the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College. She focuses on older professionals. When she asks them about quitting work cold turkey, this is what she hears.

FIDELER: I will not any longer have the reason to get up in the morning. I will no longer have my colleagues, people I've worked with for years and I've enjoyed. I'm afraid my brain will turn to mush and then what'll I do. So a gradual program can be just the ticket.

JAFFE: Those fears are shared by a lot of workers who aren't doctors or lawyers or professors.

TIM DRIVER: People who during their earlier years earned somewhere between $30- and $80,000 a year.

JAFFE: These are Tim Driver's clients. He's the CEO of RetirementJobs.com. Driver tries to find employers who are friendly to older adults and their desire for part-time work. Unfortunately, says Driver, a lot of employers aren't. Age discrimination, he says, is one of the reasons his clients are looking for work in the first place.

DRIVER: The good news is it's slowly eroding. The bad news is it's not eroding at the rate that would be appropriate to welcome back all of these older Americans into the work place.

JAFFE: That's going to disappoint and frustrate a lot of people. A recent survey, commissioned by the Associated Press, found that more than 80 percent of workers over age 50 expect to keep working in what we used to call retirement.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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