And although the numbers have shot up since the recession, it’s not all about the money.
“I don’t want to end up senile and wake up not knowing my name,” said Lois Revel, 80, of Northeast Washington, who officially retired in 1991 after 30 years at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and now prepares food samples at the Pentagon City Costco several days a week. “When you stay home, you just immediately deteriorate. This keeps me going.”
The recession that began in late 2007 has accelerated a trend that began about two decades ago. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the proportion of seniors in the work force was dropping, according to statistics compiled by the Urban Institute’s Program on Retirement Policy. By the mid-1980s, it was less than 11 percent. It’s been creeping up ever since. By last year, it was 17 percent, right back where it had been in 1967.
The workplace is expected to continue getting grayer, with the first baby boomers turning 65 this year. The Census Bureau said Wednesday that more than 40 million Americans, an unprecedented 13 percent of the population, have passed that milestone.
“There’s no doubt that work at an older age is going to become increasingly common for years to come,” said Richard Johnson, who heads a team of Urban Institute researchers who study retirement patterns.
Washington, long known as a city of workaholics, is at the forefront of the trend.
The Washington area has a higher percentage of people with college educations than any other metropolitan area in the country. That means there are many people whose jobs are more intellectual than physical and are, therefore, relatively less challenging to aging bodies.
Many of them are reluctant to quit.
“A lot of people here like their work,” said William Frey, 64 , a demographer with the Brookings Institution. “Part of it is people want to continue making money. But part of it is people really don’t see their work lives, and their professional status, ending at 65.”
Washington is home to a lot of people who worked for the federal government or the military. Even after they retire with the defined pensions that are dwindling among private employers, many continue working at least part time as consultants, sometimes for the agencies that once paid them a salary.
Jobs held by older Americans tend to be more professional, according to an analysis done by Urban Institute researchers. More than one in three are managerial, business or other professional occupations. Not even one in five involves blue-collar work.
Chuck Timanus spent his career in a variety of professional jobs in the Washington area, working for two members of Congress, the commission on the Constitution’s bicentennial and a lobbying group. Now 69, he is public relations director of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees.
Timanus said he has been hearing for years about an impending wave of retirees that would decimate the federal workforce. But he has yet to see any sign that it is happening. He thinks that’s because a lot of federal workers are as happy with their jobs as he is with his.
“I enjoy my job,” said Timanus, who has worked for NARFE for 14 years. “I like working here. I love working with the members. It’s not an economic thing. I’ve told my wife, when the job ceases to be fun, then I’ll join her in retirement.”
The effect of the recession on most workers was different from its effect on older workers, who tended to cling to the jobs they already had, Johnson said. The percentage of workers who were younger than 62 and either working or actively looking for a job fell precipitously. Many of them simply dropped out, totally discouraged, he said. During the same time frame, the percentage of people 62 or older in the workforce kept rising.
“With the crisis in 2008 and 2009, people seemed to be really worried about retirement security, and they were reluctant to leave their jobs,” Johnson said. “And when they lost them, they kept looking.”
Augusta Thomas reentered the work force at 87, and she expects to be working when she turns 90 next year. After retiring in 1992 as a nursing assistant at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Louisville, she volunteered at shelters for the homeless and centers for children with disabilities.
But in 2009, she ran for and was elected to a three-year term as national vice president for women and fair practices at the American Federation of Government Employees. Her much younger colleagues say she has more energy than they do.
“I can’t stay in no house every day,” said Thomas, who raised nine children so there wasn’t much money left to prepare for a retirement filled with leisure. “I was able to retire with a decent income. I got a pension and a dab of money from Social Security. But I didn’t do it for the money. I just like working.”
Database editor Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.
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