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VOL. 44 | NO. 22 | Friday, May 29, 2020

Seniors jump back into the job market despite risks

Fastest-growing segment of the U.S. workforce

By Whitney Diller

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Being a member of the 60-plus age group, Carolyn Northup is considered a high risk for COVID-19. So the veteran auto sale representative has spent the last six weeks working from home, connecting with longtime customers and following new leads.

She even placed a special order for a client, even though the Jaguar Land Rover plants in the United Kingdom have all temporarily closed.

Now she is happily back in her light-filled corner office in Land Rover Nashville’s showroom, talking on the phone with a customer as shoppers milled about looking at the latest models.

“I don’t want you to like it,” she says. “I want you to love it. I call them beautiful tanks - 6,000 pounds,” she adds, describing Range Rovers. “There’s nothing like them.”

Northup should know. She has been successfully selling the brand for 22 years and has no plans to retire, even as the pandemic continues with no clear end in sight.

Workers in Northup’s age group or older remain in the workforce or return to it by ‘un-retiring’ for many reasons, including financial need, becoming an entrepreneur or shoring up an industry in need of skilled talent, just as retired doctors and nurses have returned to duty to fight COVID-19.

With people living longer and healthier lives, retiring at 65 might not be feasible with many concerned they’ll outlive their nest egg. The uncertainty of the pandemic has emphasized that fear, urging seniors to hang on to their jobs, return to work or start over in a new field.

Northup says she’ll take precautions in returning to work, but even with the current conditions she’s glad to get back in the office able to reconnect – at a safe distance – with colleagues and customers.

“I’ve been very pleased to be in a job, all these years, and at my age, that I want to continue,” says the great-grandmother of five. “If my health holds out, I’m going to. That would be the only thing that would change my thought about my future is my health. So far, knock on wood, I’ve been blessed with reasonably good health for my age.”

Reimaging retirement

Bureau of Labor Statistics show older Americans are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. workforce. One in five workers is 55 or older and by 2024, that number will be one in four. A RAND corporation study on the subject finds 39% of workers 65 and older who are currently working had previously retired.

“The last third of life is being reimagined and reinvented into ‘un-retirement,’” says Chris Farrell in his book, “Unretirement, How Baby Boomers are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community and the Good Life.” “If the popular images of retirement are the golf course and the RV, the defining institutions of un-retirement are the workplace and the entrepreneurial startup...”

Rebecca Kelly, Tennessee state director of AARP, says she, too, has seen a major change over her nearly three decades at the nonprofit organization.

“…The number of people over 65 who are working has doubled in 30 years, and that’s significant. And then almost half of all new entrepreneurs are above 45, with 25% of new entrepreneurs being over 55.”

It’s telling that AARP no longer stands for the American Association of Retired Persons. It is simply AARP, with the tagline, Real Possibilities.

Houri Barahimi, who owns Fashion Alterations in Green Hills, was working from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. five days a week and a slightly shorter day on Saturdays. Then the pandemic hit. She closed her business to the public in mid-March. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t working.

Barahimi, reading glasses perched on her nose, can often be found at her sewing machine, making custom creations or altering designer pieces for loyal customers. When asked her secret to looking far younger than her 69 years, the petite blonde says, laughing, “It’s working!” That and a positive attitude.

And while she’d like to cut back her hours so she’d have more time in the morning to exercise and enjoy a leisurely breakfast, Barahimi, who opened the business in 1982, has no plans to retire.

“It makes you happy when you go out of the house and you see your clients and you see your friends. These customers, we’ve developed a friendship with them. It’s not just a workplace. It’s family.”

Her plans to continue working haven’t changed because of the pandemic. She has simply adjusted.

Her two employees of 25 years haven’t been coming in for safety reasons. One of her two daughters is a doctor, so Barahimi is well aware of the need for masks and made more than 100 to donate to Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Gradually, customers are calling to make appointments.

Before Gov. Bill Lee’s “Safer-at-Home” order, it wasn’t unusual for Olin West, 76, to run into some of his former students while out and about.

“I’d have people, when I’m walking down the aisle at Kroger, eighth graders I haven’t seen in four years, say, ‘Mr. West, it’s nice to see you!’ The parents will say, ‘Who is that?’ They’ll say, ‘He’s my favorite substitute teacher.’

The popular teacher and former banking executive, who previously retired at 61, realized after six or seven months that traditional retirement was not for him. A previous customer who knew he had taught American Institute of Banking classes suggested he try teaching.

The father of four and grandfather to four more, started teaching high school but found he prefers elementary. During a typical school week, he can be found following lesson plans and herding first or second graders into the cafeteria.

When he’s not teaching, he goes to the downtown or Maryland Farms YMCA three or four days a week to work out or play handball. He plans to continue teaching in the fall, assuming classes resume as planned.

Zooming seniors

Experts say numerous factors are contributing to the shift to unretirement:

  • Americans are living longer and staying healthier longer
  • They have a desire to contribute to society
  • They need enough income to last another two decades

The average life expectancy for Americans who reach age 65 is 84.3 years, the RAND corporation reports.

“What makes the baby-boom generation different is that they’re really confronting a different reality,” Farrell says by telephone from his home in Minnesota. “There’s this –dating myself – but this Buffalo Springfield song, ‘Something’s happening here …’

“We’ve had this notion of you go to school and then you work really hard, and then you embrace leisure for the rest of your life. Now what we’re kind of saying is, that’s not a satisfactory life course.”

While Farrell says it’s too early to tell how the pandemic will affect older American’s work trajectories, he does think there will be more telework.

“On the job front, according to economist Martin Baily of the Brookings Institution, more than 40% of workers 55 years and older are employed in management, professional or related services,” Farrell notes. “Those are the kinds of occupations that lend themselves to telework.”

Carolyn Northup is back in her office at Land Rover Nashville’s showroom after the pandemic lockdown. She’s one of many workers over 65 who has no plans to retire or are thinking about un-retiring.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

He says there might be more ageism because there’s a popular misconception that older workers aren’t suited for telework. He disputes that, pointing to the large number of older Americans connecting with family via Zoom.

“I think part of what we’re dealing with,” says Susan Sizemore, director of communications at FiftyForward, “is we’re kind of at a crossroads – where the fear and technology have intersected and forced a lot of people to find new ways to do things that they might not have been willing or might not have needed to do before.”

Many of the classes held at FiftyForward, which serves older adults in Middle Tennessee, are being held on Facebook Live.

Programming has included a low-impact aerobics class, strength training, a birdwatching course and cooking classes. One staff member taught a class with her father, who lives in the UK, on how to make beer bread.

To protect staffers and clients, many of whom are high risk because of their age, FiftyForward has closed its centers through the end of the month. But administrative staff members continue to work, either remotely or by taking every precaution if they come into the office.

Using your talents

The director of finance and operations for FiftyForward is a perfect example of un-retirement.

Teresa McDaniel, 61, retired from her job as chief financial officer for WSMV-TV after working there 25 years, but decided after two years she wanted to go back to work.

“I didn’t feel I had a purpose,” McDaniel acknowledges, “and, interestingly enough, my children and husband were encouraging me, ‘Hey, you need to go back to work. You’re just not using all of your talents,’ so I thought perhaps I could use my talents in the nonprofit world.

“I really feel I am making a difference,” McDaniel says. “There is knowledge and experience that I’ve gained over a period of time and it is still relevant today. And every day, I’m learning something new and different, which is very appealing to me.”

Sallie Hussey, executive director of FiftyForward, has seen in her own family a different approach to retirement. Her mother just recently quit her second career at age 81.

“My mom was a full-time nurse and she didn’t stop until maybe her early 70s. And she is just now finally retiring from her second gig, which was boarding horses and mules. And that was because we said to her, ‘You can’t continue to lift 50 pounds of hay all day, every day, Mother.’”

Farrell says he understands the appeal of staying in the workforce. “…The notion that all this skill, all this knowledge that you’ve accumulated in your lifetime, that you reach some arbitrary age and say, ‘I’m no longer going to contribute to society. I’m not going to tap into my knowledge or my skills anymore. It is just not satisfactory to a lot of people.”

Rethinking Social Security

The financial aspect is certainly an incentive to continue working. Each year past full retirement age (determined by birth year) someone delays filing, there will be an 8% increase in payments that continue for life.

Farrell, whose most recent book is titled “Purpose and a Paycheck, Finding Meaning, Money and Happiness in the Second Half of Life,” adds rather than automatically thinking about being eligible at 62 to take Social Security, the conversation should be reframed.

“Well, you can file at age 70, but if you need to, you can file all the way down to age 62,” Farrell says. “So just kind of reversing it. It’s good because some people need that money right now.”

He does say the current crisis might prompt some older Americans to take Social Security earlier than they had planned. It all depends on how badly the economy suffers as a result of the pandemic and how long it takes to recover.

Even before COVID-19, finances figured into older Americans continuing to work.

“I think a big part of it is economic necessity,” says Grace Smith, executive director of the Council on Aging of Middle Tennessee. “Because if you look at how much the average American has saved, it is not enough. It certainly is not enough to last into your 90s, much less becoming a centenarian.”

Beyond finances, an opportunity to socialize and having a sense of purpose are also key reasons older Americans are continuing to work, Smith explains. “I think the social piece is particularly important as there’s more attention now on social isolation and the negative health effects of social isolation.” This last month-and-a-half has certainly brought that issue into focus.

Those who work past 65 are three times more apt to be in good health and about half as likely to have diseases such as cancer or heart disease as those who had stopped working, finds a 2015 study of 83,000 older Americans that spanned 15 years. It was published in the CDC journal “Preventing Chronic Disease.”

There is a ‘Which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ element, which researchers concede; some older workers stopped working because of health issues. But the link is clear.

The study concludes by recommending employers accommodate older workers with “functional limitations” to allow more of them “to join the ranks of their healthier peers.”

A job all your own

Finding a job that is rewarding and not overly stressful is also important, which is why many older Americans are tapping into their entrepreneurial spirits and creating their own jobs.

Hugh Bennett, 72, has had a storied career in music and event production, having been road manager for Johnny Paycheck, Johnny Rodriguez, Shelby Lynne, Carlene Carter and Stella Parton, among others. Then, in 2006, he underwent 48 weeks of treatment for Hepatitis C.

“It looked like things were going to be fairly bleak, so I retired,” Bennett recalls. Knowing he would be housebound, he turned to another passion, rock tumbling – the simplest form of lapidary – which involves the collecting and polishing of gemstones.

“When I started doing lapidary, (which incorporates cutting and faceting gems), I was told by one of the guys, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll never make a living doing this.’ And I just kept my mouth shut and said, ‘You’re absolutely right.’

Then, Bennett says with a laugh, “I started making a living doing this.”

His work with gemstones led to jewelry making and, ultimately, silversmithing. By 2011, he had beaten Hepatitis C and his jewelry business was thriving. He joined forces with a business partner, Nola Jane, and their pieces were carried in multiple stores and galleries, including Shimai Gallery of Contemporary Craft at The Loveless Café.

He does quite a few custom pieces and also teaches jewelry-making classes sponsored by FiftyForward – on hold temporarily because the equipment required would make it almost impossible to teach virtually.

He had also gotten back into music and event production and before COVID-19 and had several shows scheduled at the Ryman, which, for now, have been canceled. “Clearly, I’m not retired,’’ Bennett explains. “…I have a saying, ‘I haven’t had a job since I was 20 but I’ve worked all my life. I enjoy what I do.”

AARP’s Kelly would applaud that approach.

“We’re really encouraging society to think about the whole spectrum of aging in a different way,” she points out. “It’s not that 40 is the new 20 or 60 is the new 40. Sixty is the new 60 and here’s what it looks like, and it’s very different from what our children or our parents and grandparents grew up with.”

Retirement too, will continue to look very different, predicts Farrell, whose youngest child is in his late 20s.

“He’s going to have a really different conversation about his next chapter than my peers did when they were 50 or 55-years-old,” Farrell adds. “The image was really the classic image of the golf course and the sun and traveling … That really was the image. I think they’re going to have a very different image and they will not be using the word retirement.

“I’m not sure what word they will be using, but it will be more a conversation about, ‘What am I going to do next?’”

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