Fifty, 55, 60 mph. Turning up a driveway, he reaches out the window and, snap, the mailbox opens. Bull is a letter carrier with the longest postal route in the United States, 187.6 miles across some of the loneliest territory in the country. He’s 72 and part of the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. labor force — those who work past their 65th birthdays.
Into the mailbox goes the weekly Southwest Oklahoma Shopper and a letter from Stockmans Bank, and, slam, the door shuts tight. Snap-and-slam wasn’t always the soundtrack of Bull’s workday. He was a high school principal, coach and referee who retired in the late ’90s only to come back to a payroll. Now he’s one of 7.2 million Americans who were 65 or older and employed last year, a 67 percent jump from 10 years before.
They work longer hours and earn more than they did a decade ago. Fifty-eight percent are full-time, compared with 52 percent in 2002, and their median weekly pay has gone up to $825 from $502. In the second quarter, government data show, Bull and his peers made $49 more a week than all workers 16 and older.
Retirement is rarely the discrete here’s-your-gold-watch event it once was. With pensions ever more scarce, millions face perpetual employment.
“It’s becoming the norm,” says Kevin Cahill, research economist at Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging and Work.
Reasons for staying in the workforce cover the spectrum in the post-recession economy. Some need the money to live day to day. Some want to build up battered 401(k) plans or put more away for the kids. Some find that the daily activity organizes their lives, keeping them connected and useful.
For Bull, who has a pension and Social Security and a $62,000 annual salary, it’s mostly about family. With what his wife, Susan, a second-grade teacher, makes, they earn six figures. He says his working helps them maintain a comfortable lifestyle and allows him to save to leave something substantial for Susan, who’s 17 years his junior, and his grandchildren.
Eddie Beard, 75, is a fellow rural letter carrier whose route is a mere 147 miles. A Church of Christ preacher, he came to the U.S. Postal Service 18 years ago for the retirement plan “because the clergy doesn’t have one.”
Lawyer Mike Henry, 73, a customer on Bull’s route, still goes to the office because he declared bankruptcy in 1987 after losing his Texas real estate investments when crude oil prices plunged. “I need the money,” Henry says. He figures he’ll work “until I die.”
Like Bull and Beard, he harbors no resentment. “It keeps me alive and alert, and it gives me something to do where I can help folks,” says Henry, who estimates half his legal work these days is pro bono. “If I won the lottery, I wouldn’t quit.”
Meanwhile, their median weekly pay has increased to $825 from $502.
These workers made $49 more a week in the second quarter than all workers 16 and older, according to government data.