Gail Sheehy: The New UnRetirement

c Gasper Tringale

Three quarters of the country’s 78 million boomers expect to work until the age of 70. But will employers still love them when they turn 65?

Boomers bring to the retirement years a huge talent pool that never existed before in the history of humankind: tens of millions of highly educated and experienced people who are in relatively good health, nearly free of childcare responsibilities, and mostly eager to continue to contribute their skills and institutional memories to making America better.

Three quarters of the country’s 78 million boomers were working when they hit 60 (in 2006) and most told pollsters they expect to work until 70. Many anticipate working indefinitely — and not only out of necessity. Under optimal conditions, many have a life expectancy somewhere in the vicinity of 90. Their predecessors, who today range in age from 65 to 74, are the most able-bodied geezers who ever walked the plains of America: 88 percent of men and women between 65 and 74 are healthy enough for work.

But will employers still love them when they turn 65?

They will probably pick off only those who are web-savvy, worth their weight in a wealth of connections in their field, and wedded to a high-maintenance lifestyle. The difference in health and life expectancy between the most and least affluent Americans is striking. The richest Americans, who can afford private medical care, had a 3-year advantage in the 1980s over the average life span of the working poor and below. In the last two decades, the advantage of the superrich has doubled.

Before the global economic meltdown, successful boomers were watching their stock portfolios fatten and salivating over dreams of retiring earlier than ever and triangulating between fishing in Newfoundland, skiing in Aspen, and restocking their wine cellar in southern France. No one gave much thought to the prospect of millions of Americans attempting 40-year retirements, financed by 30 years of work. The rude awakening only hit when people saw their portfolios shrivel in 2007- 09. Employers were way ahead of them, many having shifted all the risk of retirement savings onto workers through defined-contribution plans. Suddenly, 70 percent of boomers found themselves helping to bail out their adult children and paying for health care costs for their parents while struggling to pay down college loans, credit card debt and a mortgage that suddenly looked voracious against an anemic housing market.

Will social mobility correct for this problem? The gulf between the have-it-alls and what used to be America’s middle class has widened to Great Lakes proportions. The middle class has been stagnant or slipping inexorably down the class ladder for the past 20 years. The only people who can still confidently answer the question “Am I richer than I was a decade or two ago?” are the top one percent of Americans.

The average after-tax income of the richest 1 percent of households rose from $337,100 a year in 1979 to more than $1.2 million in 2006 – an increase of nearly 260 percent. Once they lock onto astronomical fees as CEOs or financial advisors or partners in top law firms or private medical groups, this echelon keeps compounding its wealth. More than 70 percent of the highest earning one percent of American households in 2004 were also among the highest earning five percent of households in 1994. Those households now have an average net worth of $15 million.

Let’s look at most everyone else – the 80 percent of households below the top five percent. Their average net worth was around $82,000 in 2004, and that includes the money they had tied up in their homes before the bottom fell out of the American dream.

If Congress ever does increase the legal retirement age to 70, it will require black men to work longer than they are expected to live. Affluent white women now live, on average, 14 years longer than poor black men in America.

The have-it-alls lock in their advantages in midlife if not before. Executives benefit greatly by being able to afford private medical care. The difference in life expectancy between the most and least affluent Americans nearly doubled over the last two decades

As of the 2006 U.S. census, almost two thirds of federal, state, and local government workers were all over 40 years of age. How many will be able to hold on to their jobs past 65, given the anti-populist Republican movement bent on overturning  50 years of union bargaining rights? And when they run into forced retirement, how many big -ox stores will be eager to hire grey-haired stock clerks and grannies as greeters?

It’s beginning to look like the boomers who will be willing and able to work beyond their sixties and perhaps into their eighties are affluent white men and their wives. They may be motivated by wanting to extend the lifestyle to which they are accustomed, even after the company credit card is null and void. And some may be shamed into paying off mortgages for their much-poorer adult children or staking their grandchildren to college.

It’s payback time for wealthy boomers.

Journalist and lecturer Gail Sheehy is the author of 16 books about adult life stages, including Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence. This story appears in USA Today

5 comments so far.

  1. avatar Barbara says:

    And while the financials are forcing people to want to work longer and longer, large companies continue to try to force employees into early retirement, often on the assumption that benefits will be there for them.  Those benefits are then cut drastically, leaving those early retirees to look for a new job.  The smaller companies that might be hiring are looking for the young, inexpensive recent college graduates, not for the experienced and more expensive candidates (perceived as “old”).
    Our congress people talk tough about how we have to cut back on social security and people have to work longer (while knowing that personally they will be covered by the absolutely best completely paid for benefits that can be had).  But decent paying jobs are not there for someone who is 65 or 68 or 70.  And it’s difficult to live on a Walmart greeter job income.  And if you have been stamping parts or digging ditches for a living for 35 years, you may not have the physical stamina to be able to continue doing that when you are in your 60′s.
    We need a reality check on what’s in those spreadsheets vs what is physically possible.

  2. avatar Mary says:

    I fully expect that I will be working into my 70′s and probably not because of financial need but rather puposeful need.  As a employer I prize my employees that are over 60 and in their 70′s.  They are the most reliable and loyal.  I believe that most employers have it wrong when they replace the more mature with the inexperienced .  True we need balance and we all need experience and to build a work history but I have found that todays new workforce isn’t as diligient and interested in working their way up the ladder, they want to start out on top of the ladder and on their own terms.  I find this not only in my business now but when I was working in mainstream employment as well.

    As business owners grow older , I believe that there will be more room for the more mature and experienced worker to remain in the workplace as we are more and more seeing the value and we are staying healthier both in mind and body. 

  3. avatar Barbara says:

    Mary, I hope what you are saying is true.  I contract that with the rhetoric I am hearing about public employees, which castigates those who have been in their jobs for a long time.  In my state, the newly elected governor seems to feel that teachers who have been in their jobs for more than five years or so are “old” and “ineffective” and wants them all replaced by younger, less expensive teachers.  I feel this is a place where you get what you pay for.  It takes a while for teachers to become fully effective.  Our bottom line approach to everything says we can get cheaper teachers through constant churn bringing in new people every year.  We may balance the books but we pay with problematic education of our children.
    It’s a trade off I’m not willing to make.

  4. avatar Mary says:

    Barbara,  you have a point as well and that will be put back in the hands of the public by elections and tax dollars down the road.  Many states including mine are going through the same right now with our newly elected govenors choosing to attack not only teachers but all public service jobs.  That would be another discussion. However I feel that these govenors are not only walking down the wrong  path but are doing so while walking backwards.

    My perspective probably comes from a different angle and probably a differenet economic situation than Gail’s piece as well.  I don’t believe that the majority probably feel the way I do but I believe they will feel differently in the next few years.  Here’s why. 

    We are seeing the beginning of the “Baby Boomers” aging right now.  As time marches on we Baby Boomers will be the biggest audience for advertisement in every single market of this country. We are not our mothers and fathers generation and as much as they opened some passage ways for us, that will pale in comparison to the power that we will have.  I don’t believe that my generation is going to sit back into retirement in the same way they did.  The world is changing too fast and we have learned too many things from that generation.  First of all we know that the longer we are productive in life the better off we are.   As society faces many challenges morally and economically we will be called upon and ARE being called upon to help reshape and mentor.  I see that the power is in our hands and the sooner we realize that the sooner we will see a difference in how business thinks.

    There is a huge difference in working in a factory as a Senior and teaching the younger generations about working in the factory.  But as I have said many times in this forum, Health Care is where it is at.  One of the biggest problems we have as a society ( at least in my view) is the inability for the mainstream public to look outside of the box.  It is why many small towns in this country are struggling and many institutions are falling apart, even education.  The view and open statement of many who bemoan change is ” this is the way we have always done it”   Why??  If this is the way things have always been done and if you can clearly see that it is not working, why are we still doing things that way? 

    If any generation should know better, it is our generation.  Look at all of the changes and conflicts we have had to go through.  I didn’t learn how to use a computer in grade school, I had to be motivated to learn it on my own.  One of many examples, but since I had to learn how to use a computer, I also had to learn how it could work for me as a tool and because I did not have someone telling me how to use it, my mind was free to be more creative in how I would use it. 

    I can tell you without a doubt that right now I have more work available to those in the older age bracket than I can take care of.  I have branched out to different aspects of my initial business and will probably branch out yet again.  While my beginnings would not allow those working for me to “get rich”, they are still the basis for my whole business and supplement many a income.   As I grow I have many opportunities for higher income potential and will move people from within first.  I know that I am not that special to be that unique , I simply looked outside the box.

  5. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    The majority of older people that we know are still in the workforce because of the tanked stocks, low interest on savings and CD’s as well sinking real estate values. They did all the right things to get ahead in life only to be shut down about the time they should have been able to retire. They certainly can’t afford retirement when grocery and gas prices are at an all-time high and utilities continue to climb. Medical costs are another issue because they hope not to have to choose between eating and medication.

    Some of the CEO pay and bonuses are out of proportion to what the individuals earning them contribute to the companies they lead. If workers are asked to take pay cuts they ought to take a similar cut and forgo the bonus. Some of the people hired to run companies with MBA’s and no real work experience but theory gutted those facilities. They were rewarded with a golden parachute while the staff earned pink slips and those who did stay on took on the work of two to three coworkers daring not to complain because they were lucky to be employed.

    Part of the huge gap between the wealthy and middle class came about in part because so many of our manufacturing jobs went south of the border and overseas for cheaper labor. In the end some of those moves were not cost effective but the jobs and wages they generated were gone. People who used to make a decent living ended up working for minimum wages or taking on temp work.

    Those at retirement age are not slackers they are individuals with solid work experience who want to continue to contribute. They didn’t cause our economic mess but they are paying the price.