Area Leads Nation in Putting Off Retirement

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Squeezed by soaring health-care costs and dwindling pensions, ever more Americans are choosing to postpone retirement -- and the Washington region leads the nation when it comes to working past age 65, according to census figures released today.

The annual survey of 3 million households nationwide also found that 24 percent of immigrant households don't speak English and revealed stark differences between the socioeconomic status of Asian and Latin American immigrants. The 2006 American Community Survey of social, economic and housing information reaffirmed that the Washington region ranks among the nation's leaders in education levels, time spent commuting and median home values.

But the sharp spike in the percentage of workers 65 and older was the survey's most remarkable finding. Nationally, the share of people 65 to 74 who were still working jumped from one in five in 2000 to one in four in 2006. And the percentage was even higher in the Washington region, where about one-third of people in that age range continued to work.

Henry Behrens of Alexandria has already retired once -- in 1990, after a military career -- but says he doesn't plan to retire a second time.

"Being handsome doesn't pay the bills," said the white-haired Behrens, 63, who has worked for more than a dozen years as a security guard.

Eileen Masters, an assistant principal at St. Pius X Regional School in Bowie, said she never imagined she'd still be working at 70. Then her husband left her and one of her sons became too ill to work -- and Masters found that retirement was not an option.

"I purchased a townhouse pretty recently, so the payments are still high," Masters said. "Also, I worry a lot because my son doesn't have health insurance. If I didn't have these situations, I'd have retired by now."

Although census statistics offer little insight into the motivation of these older workers, researchers say other data suggest that Masters isn't the only one driven by necessity rather than choice.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that the number of private sector workers eligible for an employer retirement plan has dropped from 52 percent to 43 percent since 2000, while rising housing costs have cut into workers' personal savings, according to Christian Weller, a professor at the University of Massachusetts and senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress. Since the early 1990s, employers have also severely curtailed the health insurance coverage they offer retirees.

"People are simply hanging on to their job as a way to hang on to their income and to their health insurance so they can supplement their Medicare coverage," Weller said.

But more positive influences might contribute to the Washington region's top ranking for non-retired seniors. They include the propensity of highly skilled, intellectual workers to remain engaged in their fields beyond retirement age, as well as the introduction of laws prohibiting age discrimination and making it easier to draw Social Security when working past retirement age.

Murray Smith, who lives in Alexandria and admits only to being in his 70s, said he would like to continue publishing his magazine for professional pilots "for another 100 years."

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