Many people look at their 80s as a time to enjoy retirement.
Cy Breen, 83 years young and the happy holder of two jobs, thinks otherwise.
His thrice-weekly commute, 2 1/2 hours in each direction, takes Breen from Cathedral City in Riverside County to the Encino office of Executive Car Leasing, where he has worked as a salesman for 32 years. A little self-pity would not seem out of order for someone half his age regularly enduring a drive half that long. But Breen, who also spends three days a week staffing a photo finishing shop he owns near his desert home, confesses he has never been much of a clock watcher when it comes to his work.
"I always thought 'retire' was something you did to your car," joked the Arkansas native, who resists being cast as his office's sage old man. "I've been called a workaholic, but to me that means you are pressuring yourself to do the job. I do it because I enjoy doing it."
Two decades beyond the nation's median retirement age of 63, Breen is part of a small and overlooked segment of the population: octogenarians who remain actively engaged in their careers. In the days before Social Security and pension plans made a leisurely retirement possible, workers like him were much more common.
Now, after three decades of steady decline, the percentage of Americans 75 and older who are still working has stabilized, due to increased longevity and improved enforcement of rules barring age discrimination. In 1985, 405,000 men and women, or 3.9% of the 75-and-over age group, were economically active, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By last year, the number had grown to 694,000, or 5.4% of the age group.
Such senior citizens provide a compelling crosscurrent to the tide of middle-aged workers who are withdrawing from the work world, whether by choice or because of corporate restructurings. For example, researchers know that older workers who have already survived multiple career-related crises tend to be more satisfied with their jobs than their younger colleagues. Studies have also shown that staying intellectually challenged, either through paid work or some other pursuit, improves a person's quality of life in his or her later years.
"The message is that old age can be synonymous with competency, vitality and high performance," said Helen Dennis, a lecturer at USC's Andrus Gerontology Center.
Indeed, to spend time with these uncommonly active eightysomethings is to know the particular pleasure of individuals who have made peace with their career choices. In Southern California, for example, among octogenarians still vigorously at work are such people as Lillian Seitsive, a Northridge general practitioner who recently celebrated her 89th birthday; Larry Edmisten, 84, a Studio City probate attorney, and Marv Wolfe, 85, who came out of retirement to open a North Hollywood harmonica store two years ago.
Besides the blessing of comparatively good health, they all share a passion for their professions and work for pleasure rather than money. They attribute their ability to keep burnout at bay to a lifelong commitment to balancing work with travel, family, community involvement and hobbies.
Seitsive still remembers the day she realized her age had become an issue in her medical practice. A woman Seitsive had been treating for years informed her that she was switching to another doctor, someone younger, because she was afraid of being without care should Seitsive die or retire.
"That was 25 or 30 years ago," she said with a slight smile. The patient tried to come back a few years after the defection, but Seitsive, feeling betrayed, refused to treat her. "I'm getting more used to abandonment now," she said.
When you've been a doctor for 64 years, as Seitsive has, hardly a day goes by without some reminder of your longevity. Two years ago, when she attended the Class of 1931 reunion for the Medical College of Pennsylvania, only she and one other classmate were still practicing medicine. Of the 38 founders of Northridge Hospital, she is the only doctor who remains an active staff member.
If anything, Seitsive wishes she were busier. She sees only about 30 patients a week; she used to care for more than that in a day. The enemy is not so much her age--although she has cut back her office schedule to 3 1/2 days a week. Instead, she blames the rise of health maintenance organizations. Seitsive refuses to participate in such insurance plans because she believes they would force her to spend less time with each patient and compromise their care. The sad result has been that as more people have joined HMOs, her business has dropped off considerably.
"I like to do my job," she said. "I feel robbed."
Studio City attorney Edmisten graduated from Harvard Law School at a time when being a lawyer was mostly regarded as an honorable profession. Fifty-nine years later, he is doing his part to ensure that it remains one.