New generation redefines retirement as older workers stay on job

Fred Cohen, in his 70s, is well past the age of retirement, but he continues to work part-time feeding the birds at ZooMiami.
Fred Cohen, in his 70s, is well past the age of retirement, but he continues to work part-time feeding the birds at ZooMiami. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

When Fred Cohen first retired 17 years ago, his life of leisure lasted one year — enough time for him to recover from the painful arthritis in his hands. Then he was back at Zoo Miami, where he has worked for almost five decades. At 79, he still puts in 30 hours a week as a zookeeper and has no plans to quit.

Yvonne Chester, 71, retired from her full-time paralegal job in 2014, only to return to the same job three days a week. “If I had stopped all at once, it would’ve been such a drastic change,” she admits. “I couldn’t do it.”

Businesswoman Asuncion Marin retired as a financial representative at 62, but she had no intentions of letting her hard-earned skills grow stale. At 65, she’s now working as a grant writer for a nonprofit and is planning to launch her own consulting firm in the next couple of years.

Alvin B. Davis, 73, has been working as an attorney since 1967. He’s not planning to slow down. “When retirement seems more interesting than what I’m doing, then I’ll retire,” Davis says.

These South Floridians are among a growing group of workers who continue to clock in even after they’ve turned 65, that once-magical retirement age that used to mean travel, visits to the grandkids and leisurely days on the golf course. As people live longer and healthier lives, more are choosing to stay in the work force. This may mean holding on to their current job, switching to part-time work or changing careers completely.

“For many people retirement is no longer that point in time when they stop working altogether,” says Catherine Collinson, president of the private nonprofit Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. “Retirement is becoming more of a transition, something that people phase into.”

In its 16th annual retirement survey released last month, Transamerica researchers found that 41 percent of American workers envision transitioning into retirement by reducing their hours and one in five plan to continue working at the same pace as long as possible. Only 21 percent expect to stop working immediately.

The desire to continue working into retirement is strongest among those in their 60s. Eighty-two percent of that cohort expect to stay on the job past 65 — or are already doing so. “As baby boomers retire,” Collinson says, “they are revolutionizing what retirement means and what it will look like.”

Other studies echo these findings. In April, the Employee Benefit Research Institute’s annual Retirement Confidence Survey found that the percentage of people who plan to work past 65 is at an all-time high — 36 percent. One in 10 say they will never retire.

This isn’t just talk. It’s already happening. Since 2000 the labor participation rate for those between 65 to 69 years old has grown by 37 percent. About one in three is currently in the labor force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The spike is even more pronounced for those in their early 70s, a 42.4 percent jump. Now nearly one in five of 70- to 74-year-olds are still working.

Nicole Ruggiano, an associate professor at Florida International University’s School of Social Work, found similar trends in Miami. Collaborating with United Way of Miami-Dade on a soon-to-be-released study on baby boomers and retirement, Ruggiano discovered that this generation of pre-retirees is quite different from those that came before.

“Baby boomers see themselves as being much younger than their parents were at the same age,” she says. “They feel like they have more energy and can do much more. They don’t want to break their ties to the workplace.”

Many can’t afford to call it quits, either. As fewer companies offer pensions, workers are counting on a steady stream of paychecks to fatten nest eggs that were decimated during the Great Recession. In the Transamerica report, for example, 56 percent who had stayed on the job were doing it for financial reasons.

What’s more, study after study has found older adults, working or not, woefully unprepared for retirement. Among households age 55 and older, 29 percent had neither retirement savings nor a defined benefits plan, according to a May analysis by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. And of those with savings, the median amount totaled $104,000 for the pre-retiree and $148,000 for those 65 to 74 years old, hardly the hefty savings needed to finance what is an increasingly decades-long retirement.

Chester, the part-time paralegal, took early retirement in 1999 when her then-employer, an insurance company, offered her a package. The retirement lasted a weekend. She already had a job lined up because her pension check “wasn’t going to be the same as my salary.” Thankfully getting hired by her current employer turned out well, she says. “Best job I’ve ever had. I feel productive. I like what I do, I like my co-workers and I like my office.”

Max Rothman, president of the Alliance for Aging in Miami, points to a bifurcated population of older workers: those stuck in their jobs because of economic reasons and those who are sticking around because they enjoy it. Professionals and high-skilled workers — Rothman among them — fall into the latter group. He took on the head role at the agency eight years ago, at 66 and after a long career in the same field. Many of his friends are still working, too.

“For me it was the challenge, the wanting to be engaged,” he says. “I wanted to continue to do work that I feel is exceptionally important.”

Not all employers are as welcoming of older workers, however, and AARP, the advocacy group, released a study earlier this year to debunk myths about older workers. Prepared by Aon Hewitt, a management consulting service, the report found that experienced workers are productive, cost-effective and highly motivated.

Zookeeper Cohen may be the perfect example of an older worker with lots of energy and commitment to his workplace. In the dappled shade of a rainbow eucalyptus tree, he spent a steamy morning hosing down the Wings Down Under aviary at Zoo Miami and tucking kale leaves in the crooks of tree branches for the parakeets, cockatiels and rosellas. In the afternoon he turns into a one-man information show as he recounts stories and facts about these Australian birds to the visitors who come to feed them.

“Tired, me?” he says. “No, no. No way.” He jokes that others can’t keep up with him. When pressed for a date when he will call it quits, he turns coy: “I said that when I get in 50 years, I’ll call it in, but now…” his voice drifts, before picking up steam again: “They keep threatening to put a hole in back and put me in when I’m done.”

Cohen is not alone in his eagerness to keep busy. “I couldn’t stay home doing nothing,” says Marin, now working. “That’s just not my personality.”

Davis, a partner at Squire Patton Boggs LLP, doesn’t “expect to ever fully retire, as long as my health stays good. I really like what I’m doing. I’m productive and I’m of benefit to the young lawyers here.”

Working fewer days and fewer hours is often the preferred mode of staying engaged. For Marin, the 10 to 15 hours she devotes to Prosperity Social & Community Development Group through Re-Serve, a nonprofit that matches older professionals (ReServists) with organizations that need their expertise, provides her with ample time for a personal life. She spends it with grandchildren, volunteering with SCORE and planning her own business. “I knew I wanted to continue working but on my own terms. I didn’t want to be tied down to a schedule.”

After all, a job is not unlike school. Both provide irreplaceable camaraderie. FIU prof Ruggiano calls it “a reciprocal effect.”

Cohen explains the same concept with different words. “This is like my second family. I like it here, and I think they like me here.”

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