Older Americans Are Increasingly Unwilling — Or Unable — To Retire
Bob Orozco barks out instructions like a drill sergeant. The 40 or so older adults in this class follow his lead, stretching and bending and marching in place.
It goes like this for nearly an hour, with 89-year-old Orozco doing every move he asks of his class. He does that in each of the 11 classes he teaches every week at this YMCA in Laguna Niguel, Calif.
"I probably will work until something stops me," Orozco says.
He may be an outlier, still working at 89, but statistics show that there may be more people like him in the near future. About 1 in 4 adults age 65 and older is now in the workforce. That number is expected to increase, making it the fastest-growing group of workers in the country.
Older adults are turning their backs on retirement for many reasons. Some, like Orozco, just love what they do. Others, though, need the money, and there are a lot of reasons why they do.
The days of working for one company that would take care of you after you retire are long gone. Few private sector workers now have traditional, defined benefit pensions, where you're paid a fixed stipend for life depending on your salary and years of service.
Most retirement funds now are 401(k) types, where the employer and employee contribute a fixed amount and the money is invested in the stock market. During the worst of the last recession, 401(k) accounts lost almost one-third of their value. That was enough to change some would-be retirees' plans.
Also, a recent survey found that about 50% of older Americans are dipping into their retirement savings to help their grown children. And some folks just haven't saved enough: Baby boomers have median savings of a little over $150,000 to get through what could be a 30-year retirement.
Meanwhile, roughly half of private sector employers offer no retirement plans at all. That's one of the reasons about a quarter of retirees get 90% or more of their income from Social Security.
NPR's series introduces us to some older Americans as they navigate the new realities of work and retirement. Let's meet them.
Bob Orozco is an institution at the YMCA in Laguna Niguel, Calif. An exercise studio here is named in his honor.
Orozco's relationship with the YMCA began in early childhood. Growing up poor in Johnstown, Pa., during the Depression he was named "a worthy boy" by a local charity. That distinction came with a free membership to the Y, and one thing led to another. He worked for the YMCA in Rochester, N.Y., as well as for the national organization. Then about 30 years ago, he moved to Southern California so he could retire someplace where the weather was good.
Only he didn't retire.
"If I retired, I really don't know what I would be doing with myself," Orozco says. "And as long as I'm capable, I want to be able to be a contribution and not a slug."
Orozco has company. Nearly a quarter of American workers say they don't think they'll ever retire, though more than a third of them do stop working earlier than planned. The reasons include health setbacks, layoffs or age discrimination.
In an AARP survey of older workers and their reasons for staying on the job, a need for money came first. But liking to work was almost as popular.
Orozco finds meaning in what he does. He recalls a saying that goes, "God gave you a life. What are you going to do with that life?" Orozco believes, "What you do with that life is your gift back to him."
Because of what he was given as a child, he says, "I have picked up that kind of a mission of giving back."
Social Security only
This is not the life that 65-year-old Kyle Cohen imagined. After working for decades in jobs as varied as TV copywriter and children's librarian, after raising two children as a single, divorced mother, Cohen finds herself scraping by on nothing but Social Security and food stamps.
She counts herself as lucky, though. She was on a waiting list for two years before she got her current apartment at the Long Beach Senior Arts Colony. It's affordable housing, at least compared with the rest of the Los Angeles area. It also has a robust program of art classes, singing groups, writing workshops, book clubs and so on.
"From the first day that I moved in, my spirits were really lifted," says Cohen. The senior housing where she was living before, she says, "was people just sitting there waiting to die."
But remaining here is a challenge.
"Seventy-nine percent of my Social Security is spent on rent," she says. That leaves $245 for everything else: utilities, cleaning supplies, transportation and food for her little dog, Penny.
Cohen's neighbor, 73-year-old Veronica Bryant, also uses most of her Social Security income for rent. This is after a career in health care and raising a daughter as a divorced, single mother. She also took care of older relatives. But that meant she didn't save much for herself.
Bryant has a little money coming in from retirement accounts. But she still finds herself in line at food banks. It's not the kind of life she was used to. And she says she was slow to make the adjustment. She had to declare bankruptcy last year. "It threw me," she says. "I was sort of in bed for a little while trying to figure out how could this have happened."
None of this is a surprise to Heidi Hartmann, founding president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research. "Everything that women do in their lives is reflected in their retirement, sad to say," she says.
Women usually don't work as much as men, explains Hartmann. "They may take years off to take care of children and older parents." Add to that women's lower pay compared with men's and the result, says Hartmann, is "they receive smaller pensions ... and they also receive less Social Security because their earnings were lower."
Still, both Cohen and Bryant feel lucky to live in this creative community, one of about 60 such developments around California.
"It's exciting," says Bryant, "learning different things like speaking Spanish or computer," plus singing, writing, painting. Cohen says "although I'm lacking in funds, my creativity has just multiplied." She has even sold a couple of her collages.
Bryant and Cohen say that what concerns them most now is how they'll manage if there's another rent increase. They're already paying most of their money to be here. "I don't know what will happen," says Cohen. "I'm not going to worry about it now. I'm having a wonderful life."
Retiring with purpose
When some older adults stop working for pay, they start working for a cause. According to a survey from AARP, older adults say they volunteer to give back, to make a difference and to help their communities. Volunteering, in other words, provides a sense of purpose.
Carrie Eagles, 70, retired with a purpose: helping other older adults.
"What recourse do they have?" asks Eagles. "Some of them do not have families. Some have children that never visit them. So they're more out on their own and people are just taking advantage of them." She's trying to prevent that.
Eagles was a teacher most of her life, in public schools, community organizations and adult education centers. Now she volunteers at a senior center in South Los Angeles four mornings a week, signing up older people for food assistance and transportation vouchers. That sounds bureaucratic, but for Eagles, it's not: She's the sort of person who if she's met you more than once, greets you with a hug.
There is increasing evidence that having a sense of purpose pays dividends for older adults — for example, increasing longevity and reducing the risks of cognitive decline. But volunteering has another big payoff: The work of older volunteers has an economic value of more than $73 billion annually, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Money, however, is not Eagles' motivation. She says personally, she just barely gets by. She gets a stipend for her efforts at the senior center, even though she is considered a volunteer. She says with Social Security and some savings, that's enough to let her focus on her real mission: being an anchor for older folks who feel adrift.
"Seniors are just out there just feeling their way around," she says. "It's not a good situation." And it's her mission to make it better — one bus token, one taxi voucher, one hug at a time.
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