Pat Wasemann knows what it's like to work beyond traditional retirement age into her 60s.
And her 70s.
And her 80s.
The lunch aide at Memorial Elementary School in Bethel Park is still working a few hours every weekday at age 82, and she doesn't mind it one bit.
“It gets me up in the morning and gives me something to think about and, you know, I’m very dedicated. Once I start a job, I usually don’t quit,” said the widow who lives with her daughter in Upper St. Clair.
Although Ms. Wasemann is a rarity as a working octogenarian, more people every year, locally and across the nation, continue laboring for a paycheck past the time when they could be collecting Social Security.
The average age of retirement in America, which had been on the decline during much of the 20th century, has been rising for the past two decades for a combination of reasons. A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report found that about 27 percent of people ages 65 to 74 were still in the workforce, compared with just 20 percent in 2002. It predicted nearly one in three people of that age would be part of the labor pool in 2022.
“People today are working later than they have been for quite some time … as long today as in the 1970s,” said Kevin Cahill, a research economist for the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College. “The incentives have shifted in favor of work.”
Among the factors cited by Mr. Cahill and others:
• Changes to Social Security have postponed full benefits and reduced financial penalties for those who continue working.
• Shifts from guaranteed pensions to 401(k) benefit plans bring less certainty to retirement income.
• Savings rates among the working-age population have been dropping, and many people’s savings were hit hard by the recession of a few years ago that they haven’t fully recovered.
• Increased life expectancy has many people projecting they’ll need a bigger nest egg for retirement, and health improvements and the less grueling nature of jobs compared with the past enable them to stay active longer.
William Goyette, 70, a lawyer who works out of his Green Tree home, once imagined he would retire at 65. Now, as his own boss, requiring no commute, doing most work by computer, he sees no point in stopping.
“If I did retire, I wouldn’t be doing anything different except I wouldn’t be handling legal cases. I’d still be at home and still be on the computer,” he said.
The continued source of income is a plus, said Mr. Goyette, who mostly handles estate cases, but, “It’s not like I don’t want to do it. The urge to do it is still there. I like the idea of being of service to people, being able to help them with their problems.”
Mandatory retirements due to age are largely a thing of the past, as are many of the jobs that made working into one’s 60s or 70s a practical difficulty. Those older workers who want to be in the labor pool have a lower unemployment rate — about 5 percent — than the rest of the population, although it is harder for them to be rehired once they are out of work.
In Allegheny County, more than 35,000 people older than 65 are working, at least 10,000 more than in 2005, even though one survey suggests that the older population locally may be better off financially than the rest of the nation.
The preliminary data from the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research indicated 59 percent of retirees in the county had lower debt than five years ago, compared with 34 percent of retirees nationally. Thirty-two percent of local retirees reported high confidence in their ability to live comfortably throughout retirement, compared with 18 percent nationally.
The local economy’s relative success during the recession and the historical prominence of defined benefit pension plans here could have something to do with older adults being better off. Pitt researcher Don Musa cautioned that the local survey was not a random sample and was skewed in favor of respondents with higher educational levels, which could have influenced the positive results. The center will produce more comprehensive data on the topic later this year.
Regardless of financial necessities, many people like Ms. Wasemann and Mr. Goyette desire to remain active and fulfilled by working. Some change careers to pursue ventures for which they had long nursed a desire.
Some, like Dorothy Staab of Butler Township, who initially retired as a hospice nurse in 2001, are happy to work once they have an opportunity to do it part time in a way that suits their other interests in family, travel and leisure.
The Visiting Nurses Association employs Ms. Staab to work 12 to 15 hours a week counseling hospital patients and their families about end-of-life options such as hospice care. At 74, she can forgo the grinding daily travel and arduous work of nursing people at home while still feeling a sense of purpose.
“Now I have the best of both worlds, where I can still have my hand in but not for too long a period of time during the week,” said Ms. Staab, whose husband is a retired electrician. “I bring my experience of 20 years doing hospice nursing to what I’m doing now. I still feel like I have a lot to contribute, and yet the mental and physical expenditure is not there as much.”
Mr. Cahill, the researcher at Boston College, said there had been a growing trend before the recession for older people, especially those of higher income and education, to remain working voluntarily while shifting to “bridge jobs” that gave them more personal satisfaction, such as in the nonprofit sector.
Economic circumstances, however, have caused an increasing number to feel compelled to continue earning paychecks by whatever means, he said.
“We’re five years after the Great Recession, and the economy is still in very sluggish growth, and there’s little evidence that Americans will be able to save a lot more than they currently are,” Mr. Cahill observed. “You can’t go back in time and save more or change trends in benefits or Social Security, but you can choose to work more.”
Ms. Wasemann said her part-time employment in the Bethel Park School District during the school year, combined with summertime work cleaning schools, gives her extra money so that she doesn’t have to worry about pinching pennies for restaurants, bowling or her other leisure interests.
And now that she’s been working in the schools for 40 years and enjoying being around young people, she sees no point in stopping anytime soon.
“People keep saying ‘When are you going to retire?’ Well, I have no inkling. I just go day to day and hope for the best, as long as I can do the work.”
Gary Rotstein: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1255.