Laura Ehle, a 64-year-old cartographic technician in Capitol Heights, Md., checks a proof of a map she's working on before it goes to press. Ehle doesn't think she can afford to retire until she turns 70.
For some, delayed retirement is a sign of good health and satisfaction with their job. For others, it's a sign of the times — the high cost of living, the disappearance of traditional pensions and a shrinking of social security payments.
"If you look at someone age 65 or older now, that person is 75% more likely to be working than someone who was in the same age group a generation ago," says Richard Johnson, senior fellow director of the Program on Retirement Policy at the Urban Institute.
While the average American retires at 63, seniors in major metropolitan areas are continuing to work longer, often in fields that are amenable to older workers.
"Some people are in better health, but also jobs are generally less physically demanding than they were in the past," Johnson says.
And for seniors in those jobs, retirement at 63, or even 65, seems more like a relic from the past than an achievable goal.
Mapping Out The Future
Laura Ehle is 64 and doesn't think she can afford to retire until she turns 70.
More than 40 years ago, Ehle was standing behind the counter, working as a cashier at Gino's Hamburgers in Southeast D.C. In the late 1970s, she had enough of that. So, Ehle took a civil service exam that opened the doors to a new career that she's had ever since.
"I just wanted out of the fast food joint," she says.
Ehle is a cartographic technician and works inside a printing company in Capitol Heights, Md. called Williams and Heintz Map Corporation. They make maps mostly for government agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration. Ehle's focus is on aeronautical and nautical maps and highway charts. She says she loves her job.
"These maps you see here were done by hand," Ehle says, pointing out some of her past work. "Now that we're all digital, I download data from the internet and I just kind of put it together, weed through it and color it."
Ehle works at her desk inside Maryland printing company Williams and Heintz Map Corporation.
In another life, Ehle's more than 30-year tenure at the company would now be winding down. But she can't imagine retiring at age 65.
"It would be an awfully limited life. I don't even know if I could afford to have Wi-Fi," she says. "Just some basic things that so many people take for granted would be hard to afford."
Ehle has a 401(k) but says she has very little in a savings account. And because she wasn't married to her husband Ron when he retired from the Fairfax County fire department 13 years ago, Ehle is unsure what financial benefits she'll get from his pension.
But Ehle isn't convinced her days in the workforce will be completely over even when she turns 70.
"I might want to keep working or there might be something else I want to do," she says.
Delayed Retirement: The Bigger Picture
Tens of millions of people rely on Social Security to make ends meet in retirement. And millions more count on earning it after the death or disability of a loved one. As important as Social Security is for those who receive the benefit, it doesn't come without change. Each year, participants see adjustments (often small increases) to the amount they receive. But in 2020, Johnson says some of the changes could negatively impact future retirees.
"They're slowly cutting benefits. So, someone who's retiring now is going to get 12% less each month than they would have had they retired back in 2000," says Johnson.
And though pensions remain relatively common in government jobs, they have largely disappeared in the private sector. Nationally, 30% of workers over 65 say they have nothing saved in a retirement plan. There's a growing number of seniors relying on Medicare and Medicaid. And, according to a recent Axios/Survey Monkey poll, boomers today have more debt than past generations.
"When we look at who's working longer overall, it's people across the educational spectrum. It's rich people, poor people and people of all races and ethnicities," Johnson says. "They're all working longer, but the motives are very different."
"The people who have limited income, limited wealth, limited education, predominantly people of color — those are the people who are basically being forced to work longer," Johnson adds.
'I May Not Leave At 70. Who Knows?'
There are financial benefits of working longer: If you keep working, you can get more money when you retire. And Johnson says there are social benefits, too. Work brings people friendships they want to continue and gives them a sense of purpose.
Fairfax County resident John Bordeaux, who works as a policy analyst at a local think tank, is mulling his options. He's 60 now and, like Ehle, he planned to stop working at age 70. But turning 60 brought along a health scare. Bordeaux was diagnosed with bladder cancer and had surgery. This "changed the calculus a bit," he says.
"I would not have thought about retiring before 70, until the cancer stick came along," says Bordeaux.
Bordeaux, however, is hopeful he can continue working through treatments and beyond. He knows he and his wife Janet, who is already retired, will need to downsize when he retires. But he hopes to keep going until he's 70, at least to buy some time and plan his next steps.
"I tell myself it's because of the finances because that's something I can quantify, but it's mainly giving me nine years to decide what I want to do in my life," he says.
The U.S. Economy Needs Older Workers
Baby boomers are reaching retirement age rapidly, and the generations to follow are thinning as the American birth rate sinks even lower. Last year, the Census Bureau reported that by 2035, there will be more Americans over age 65 than there are children under age 18.
Not only that, but fewer people in their prime have been working in recent years — which is due in part to the opioid epidemic, mass incarceration and unaffordable child care that forces many parents to stay home.
"I really can't afford to retire. But if I hated what I do for a living, life would be miserable. So, I consider myself very fortunate," says Ehle.
Johnson says it's also important to note that there are older people who have been laid off or can't work longer, but really need to. These individuals often aren't counted in most statistics.
"For example, people who can't afford to be retired, but they can't find a job," says Johnson. "And those are people who are really struggling and who don't show up in these numbers about the old people who are working more."
He adds that older people who are still in the workforce aren't taking jobs away from younger people. In fact, many economists dispute this. Seniors on the job can boost regional economies. They help increase tax revenues, stimulate growth with more consumer spending and provide additional talent at a time of low unemployment, though economic stimulus might not be much comfort for seniors who want to retire.
As for younger people who don't want to work until they're 70, Johnson says saving money early is just about the only way to ensure a comfortable retirement.
He recommends more jurisdictions across the country implement state retirement plans to help residents boost their savings. Maryland, for instance, has set up an automatic-enrollment retirement savings program for the estimated one million Marylanders who work full-time but have no way to save for retirement at work.
"It's just a good way of getting people to save because let's be honest: most people really only save when it's automatic," Johnson says.