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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

A New Wrinkle in Workforce

An increasing number of Americans are staying employed past age 75, earning income that's a perk for some, a necessity for others.

February 24, 2005|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Dressed in painter's whites, Nick Williams points out his toughest job, a two-story Colonial with shingles that he painstakingly scraped, sanded and painted by hand.

"I was on a 32-foot ladder most of the time," said Williams, eyes twinkling. "But I was only 82 then."

Now 10 years older, Williams is still climbing ladders and painting homes all over Ventura. He labors six days a week, a pace he intends to keep until "more than my knees give out."

Far from settling into retirement, Williams and a growing number of people 75 and older are continuing to work, some because they have to, and others, such as Williams, because they want to.

There's the 81-year-old Minnesota schoolteacher who retired after 60 years last summer, only to return to the classroom in September as a substitute. In rural Wyoming, a 93-year-old surveyor pounds his own stakes five days a week.

Ella Clarke Nuite of Georgia has got them all beat. Honored last fall as "America's Oldest Worker," Nuite, 101, still pitches in daily at her family's bottled water business, filling orders and doing the books.

For this hardy crowd, work keeps their bodies fit and their minds active. It gives their lives vitality and purpose, they say, while bringing in income that is a bonus for some and a necessity for others.

"My children and many of my friends think I'm crazy," said a grinning Williams, white hair escaping his painter's cap in unruly wisps. "They're probably right."

These older workers are an example of what the U.S. workforce will look like in years to come as people live longer, healthier lives.

The number of employed workers 75 and older grew from 669,000 in 1994 to just under 1 million last year, according to Labor Department statistics. Those numbers will increase as the large baby boom generation ages.

"It's really like a big steamroller that's coming," said Martin Rome, spokesman for Experience Works, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates employment opportunities for seniors.

For many of those older seniors, work is not a choice but a necessity.

Whether outliving retirement savings or facing lower-than-expected investment returns, this population is finding that Social Security isn't enough to cover their bills.

Even before the current debate over Social Security's future, many Americans seemed doubtful they could retire without working at least part time.

In a 2003 survey, the AARP, the nation's largest senior citizens organization, found that 68% of those between the ages of 50 and 70 said they expected to work past normal retirement age. Financial need was the No. 1 reason cited.

In California, 523,000 people older than 65 are still working, said Bonnie Parks, of the state's Employment Development Department. Of those, 144,000 are in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, Parks said.

Companies are more open to hiring older people because of labor shortages, Parks said. Recent retirees are being coaxed back to work in the fields of nursing, accounting and retail, she said.

But once workers reach about 75, finding work becomes much more difficult. Employers worry that those in their 80s and 90s might not have the strength or mental capacity to get the job done, said Parks, who runs the employment department's Senior Advocate Office.

"They think that once you get gray hair and wrinkles, the brain stops working," she said. "But like everything else, it depends on the individual. A large segment of the population remains creative and mentally acute into a very late age."

Rome's organization points to Nuite as a prime example of how seniors can successfully stay in the workforce.

The great-grandmother easily rattled off dates from her past and explained nuances of the family water business in a recent interview. Hearing loss is her biggest problem, she said, especially when she uses a telephone that doesn't amplify voices.

A trained dietitian, Nuite did other jobs until she inherited Windsor Spring Water Co. in 1961. She kept the business going after her husband died, Nuite said, delivering 16-pound water-cooler bottles until she turned 80.

Two grandsons now help, and Nuite oversees operations from the 100-acre Civil War-era plantation home that her parents bought in 1930. Windsor Spring's water is drawn from a creek a quarter-mile away.

In addition to the water business, Nuite manages nine rental properties that she bought and rehabbed 20 years ago. Keeping them rented and in good repair takes a lot of her time, she said.

"I wouldn't do it for so long if I didn't enjoy it," she said of her daily schedule. "It's just a part of me."

Deciding when it is time to step aside is more difficult when an employer wants to make the decision for the older worker.

Before 1978, mandatory retirement was widespread in the United States. That year, Congress made it illegal to force a worker out before age 70, and in 1986 compulsory retirement was abolished altogether.

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