Not all older Amer­i­cans want to put their feet up just yet

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY TARA BAHRAMPOUR

When Tom Cooper came out of the Navy and got his first job sell­ing shoes, Harry Tru­man was pres­i­dent and a gal­lon of gas cost around 18 cents. Now 85, Cooper still puts on a tie five days a week and drives to work as a shoe sales­man, and he has no plans to stop.

One rea­son is that he can’t af­ford to — he needs money to pay bills from can­cer treat­ment, a back op­er­a­tion and a foot op­er­a­tion. But even if he had enough sav­ings to re­tire, he doubts he would.

“I’d go nuts. I’d have noth­ing to do,” he said. “I can’t lay around the house, do noth­ing and watch TV. I feel a lot bet­ter when I’m walk­ing and help­ing peo­ple and do­ing stock work.”

Cooper is part of a small but grow­ing seg­ment of Amer­i­cans who re­main in the work­force into their 70s, 80s and 90s. Al­though the av­er­age re­tire­ment age for Amer­i­cans is 63, the por­tion of peo­ple 75 and older in the work­force has more than dou­bled since 1985 — from 3.6 per­cent to 8 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to Bureau of La­bor Statis­tics data an­a­lyzed by the In­te­grated Pub­lic Use Mi­cro­data Se­ries (IPUMS) at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota. For those work­ing full-time, the in­crease has been even more dra­matic: From just over 1 per­cent in 1993 to nearly 4 per­cent last year.

A ma­jor rea­son is that 75 no longer rep­re­sents the very ex­treme end of life it once did, as life ex­pectancy in the United States has steadily risen over the past cen­tury.

“We’re liv­ing longer lives, and we’re also liv­ing health­ier lives, and that’s al­low­ing a lot of us to work into our 70s and 80s, not be­cause we have to, but be­cause we want to,” said Linda Sharkey, co-au­thor of “The Fu­ture-Proof Work­place,” a book on help­ing busi­nesses pre­pare for the fu­ture. “We have a pres­i­dent who’s 70 years old, and by all ac­counts, I guess he thinks on his feet.”

Peo­ple who put off re­tire­ment the long­est tend to be in the high­est and low­est-wage brack­ets, said Jen Schramm, se­nior strate­gic pol­icy ad­viser at AARP Pub­lic Pol­icy In­sti­tute. The high earn­ers tend to have more flex­i­ble sched­ules, love their work and

have longer life spans in gen­eral, she said, while the low earn­ers tend to stay at their jobs be­cause of fi­nan­cial ne­ces­sity.

The up­ward trend in the work­ing old is ac­tu­ally a shift back to an ear­lier par­a­digm, said Steven Rug­gles, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory and pop­u­la­tion stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota.

Most work­ers in the 19th cen­tury were self-em­ployed and gen­er­ally worked as long as they needed to and were phys­i­cally able to, he said. “In 1936, the in­tro­duc­tion of So­cial Se­cu­rity made it fi­nan­cially more pos­si­ble for a lot of peo­ple to re­tire, and that steadily ex­panded un­til the 1980s.”

At the same time, the pro­por­tion of wage-earn­ing jobs in­creased af­ter the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, and many em­ploy­ers be­gan man­dat­ing re­tire­ment at cer­tain ages.

Then the 1978 Age Dis­crim­i­na­tion Act out­lawed com­pul­sory re­tire­ment be­fore age 70 for most jobs, and over the fol­low­ing decade, the long de­cline in la­bor par­tic­i­pa­tion of peo­ple 75 and older bot­tomed out and be­gan to climb.

To­day, for men who re­main in the work­force past 75, top oc­cu­pa­tions in­clude chief ex­ec­u­tives and man­agers, farm­ers and ranch­ers, clergy, teach­ers, lawyers and judges, main­te­nance work­ers and real es­tate agents, ac­cord­ing to IPUMS data.

For women over 75, top jobs in­clude el­e­men­tary and mid­dle school teach­ers, nurses, cooks, maids, per­sonal aides, re­cep­tion­ists, cashiers and re­tail work­ers.

That broad range for the work­ing old re­flects a shift away from the idea that they can get hired only for “old peo­ple’s jobs,” such as sub­sti­tute teach­ers, said Matthew Rut­ledge, a re­search economist at the Cen­ter for Re­tire­ment Re­search at Bos­ton Col­lege.

“Given how young 75 seems now, I don’t think there’s quite as much dis­crim­i­na­tion and prej­u­dice to­ward peo­ple who are look- ing to ex­tend said.

“There are more baby boomers in the HR depart­ment, so they’re go­ing to be more pos­i­tively dis­posed to look­ing at ré­sumés from older peo­ple. There’s still age dis­crim­i­na­tion, of course, but it’s a lit­tle less grim than it used to be.”

Con­tin­u­ing to work might help peo­ple stay healthy. Stud­ies show bet­ter cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties as­so­ci­ated with work­ing later in life. And jobs with more flex­i­ble sched­ules or where the worker is his or her own boss can be eas­ier to keep into old age.

John Hays, 75, runs The Phoenix, a shop in Ge­orge­town that sells cloth­ing, jew­elry and folk items from around the world. He works four days a week and twice a year em­barks on shop­ping trips abroad.

His wife stopped work­ing a year ago, but he has not felt the call. “I plan to do it as long as I en­joy it,” he said. “It’s en­er­giz­ing.”

Not all the jobs are cushy. Dorothy Zehn­der, 95, works six days a week as the kitchen man­ager for the Bavar­ian Inn, in Franken­muth, Mich. She has worked in restau­rants, mostly the same one, since she was 16 — when FDR was pres­i­dent — and she used to fig­ure she’d re­tire around 65.

That plan weeks.

“I was bored,” she said of her at­tempt to re­tire. “I said, ‘I think I’ll go back and fry chicken,’ and I did that.”

Zehn­der no longer peels pota­toes or cuts cab­bage, but she starts each day at 9 a.m. in­spect­ing pro­duce, and she works six to nine hours a day. On Mon­days, her day off, she bakes at home.

Work­ing has helped her stay healthy, she said. Oc­cu­pied all day, “you for­get, some­times, your lit­tle ills and aches. You kind of for­get when you’re around peo­ple and you talk to peo­ple, and when you hear their story, you think, ‘Oh, I’m a lot health­ier than that.’ ” their lasted ca­reer,” he only two

In some fields, such as coaching or con­sult­ing, gray hair can be an as­set. “You have to have ex­pe­ri­ence in tak­ing an or­ga­ni­za­tion through cul­ture change, and that comes with a lot of time,” Sharkey said.

Age has im­proved the per­for­mance of Jen­nifer Gi­rard, 74, a pho­tog­ra­pher in Chicago who has held the same job for 44 years. She no longer does cer­tain phys­i­cally de­mand­ing as­sign­ments, such as eight- to 10-hour weddings. But age has made her looser and more re­laxed in her work.

“It’s great, be­cause I don’t care who I shoot. If it’s a fa­mous celebrity, there’s no heartbeat, there’s no anx­i­ety — the kind of things I used to feel years ago. I tech­ni­cally know what I’m go­ing to do … I’m an older soul now.”

In some pro­fes­sions, how­ever, ad­vanced age can raise ques­tions of com­pe­tency and le­gal li­a­bil­ity. For cer­tain jobs that in­volve pub­lic safety — such as pi­lots, air traf­fic con­trollers, fed­eral law en­force­ment of­fi­cers, na­tional park rangers and light­house op­er­a­tors, Congress man­dates fixed re­tire­ment ages.

Doc­tors, how­ever, have no cut­off date, and it can some­times be difficult to de­ter­mine when they are no longer able to do such things as pre­scribe med­i­ca­tions or per­form surgery.

Self-reg­u­la­tion does not al­ways work, says Mark Katlic, chair­man of the surgery depart­ment at Si­nai Hos­pi­tal in Baltimore.

“The re­al­ity is that all hu­man fac­ul­ties de­te­ri­o­rate with in­creas­ing age,” he said. “Sur­geons don’t like to think they’re hu­man, but they are.”

Cit­ing stud­ies show­ing poorer out­comes among older sur­geons for cer­tain pro­ce­dures, he added: “Ev­ery­one knows some­one who should have stopped prac­tic­ing surgery be­fore he did. It is a per­va­sive prob­lem.”

Be­cause older peo­ple’s cog­ni­tive and phys­i­cal abil­i­ties vary widely, Katlic doesn’t ad­vo­cate a blan­ket age cut­off for sur­geons, but rather a test to make sure their fac­ul­ties are in­tact.

Since last year, all health prac­ti­tion­ers 75 and older who ap­ply for a new cre­den­tial or re­cre­den­tial­ing at his hos­pi­tal must take a gen­eral phys­i­cal, eye and cog­ni­tive exam.

In 2014, Katlic started the Ag­ing Sur­geon Pro­gram, which of­fers a two-day ex­ten­sive screen­ing for older sur­geons. Two peo­ple have gone through it, but he said that more than a dozen have vol­un­tar­ily re­tired af­ter be­ing threat­ened with the pro­gram.

State Sen. Fred Risser of Wis­con­sin has no such con­cerns: At 89, he is the coun­try’s longest­serv­ing leg­is­la­tor and was re­cently elected to an­other fouryear term. Al­though his wife re­tired 15 years ago, he has no such plans.

“My dad never re­tired, and my grand­fa­ther — they kept go­ing. Re­tire­ment was never any­thing that I an­tic­i­pated or looked for­ward to,” he said, adding that he also has kept his law of­fice open while in of­fice.

“It keeps the adren­a­line go­ing. … It keeps you in bet­ter health — it keeps you ac­tive. I learn some­thing new ev­ery day.

“If you’ve got a good life,” he said, “why throw it out?”

SAMANTHA HAYS-GUSHNER

Tom Cooper, 85, top right, is pic­tured af­ter his shoe-sell­ing shift at Nord­strom at Mont­gomery Mall. Dorothy Zehn­der, 95, cen­ter, works at the Bavar­ian Inn in Michi­gan. John Hays, 75, bot­tom, at his fam­ily bou­tique in Ge­orge­town.

SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

AMB PHO­TOG­RA­PHY/COUR­TESY OF BAVAR­IAN INN RESTAU­RANT

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