Robert Griffiths is nearing that point in his life called by romantic conventional wisdom "the golden years." Griffiths is 61, has worked his entire life and though he could think about retiring now, he has no intention of doing so. Quite the contrary, he is looking to start a second career.
At various times in his life, Griffiths has worked as a hospital administrator, a college professor, a private consultant and a government bureaucrat. He says he is looking now for full-time administrative or supervisory work at an appropriate salary.
Griffiths is taking a path being followed by a growing number of retired and older Americans who find themselves bored or financially pressed or both as they come near the time customarily associated with slowing down or stopping work altogether.
More Americans than ever before are reaching what was once glowingly referred to as "the golden years." They are finding, as one put it, that those years "are not all that I had envisioned." Inflation, a chronic problem for years, has become acute, eroding the financial foundation upon which millions of older persons had built their retirement plans.
The "older American living on a fixed income" has been a staple of political rhetoric for years. Now that the crunch has come for a growing number of retired Americans and those reaching retirement age, more and more are seeking a way to ease their financial problem -- by returning to work or by postponing their retirement.
Although preliminary, the evidence is mounting that increasing numbers of Americans either are returning to work after retiring or are putting off the day when they stop working.
* The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that raising the retirement age from 65 to 70 has resulted in an additional 212,000 workers between the ages of 65 and 70 remaining in the work force.
* A Louis Harris poll of older Americans conducted in 1974 found that 35 percent of those questioned said they would like to return to work. In 1979, following a change in federal law raising the mandatory retirement age for most jobs from 65 to 70, another Harris poll found that 51 percent of those questioned said they would like to return to work.
* An analysis of Social Security figures shows that the rate of increase of retirees claiming retirement benefits is slowing. This slowdown is occurring at the same time that the number of Americans 65 and older is growing. In other words, although the number of Americans reaching retirement age is growing, the rate at which they are actually retiring is not keeping pace with their growing numbers. "People seem to be having second thoughts about when to retire," said Harold L. Sheppard, a former presidential adviser on aging.
The main impetus behind this emerging trend is clearly inflation. As one retired lawyer who is seeking a job outside his profession said, "I need the money." This lawyer, who asked not to be identified, said he had an income of about $12,000 a year, derived from his Social Security benefit of $400 a month, investments and income from a part-time sales position he held. The downturn in the economy, however, has dried up his income.
"I've had to dip into my savings and I don't want to do it anymore," he said. Asked if he was getting worried, he replied, "I'm getting concerned, not worried. I don't want to touch it if I don't have to."
Inflation for this man presents itself in clear terms. The most recent increase in Social Security retirement benefits was eliminated at one stroke by a $46-a-month increase in his rent.
Retirees receiving Social Security benefits are permitted to earn up to $5,500 a year without losing any income from Social Security. After their first $5,500, they lose $1 in benefits for every $2 in income they earn. Regardless of how much they earn, persons drawing Social Security benefits who go back to work must pay taxes and continue their contribution to the Social Security trust fund.
Social Security benefits are geared to the income the recipient earned during his or her working years. The current maximum monthly benefit a retired person 65 or older can receive is $752. Persons who decide to retire at age 62 can collect 80 percent of the maximum benefit for the rest of their lives.
Inflation, however, is only one consideration for the apparent trend away from early retirement. Griffiths, for example, though conceding that the extra income from working will be welcome, said that staying active is just as important to him.
"I can work until I'm 70, as I intend to," Griffiths said. "It's a reasonable combination of income and something to do. That's vital, to be outside the home. Get out of the house. If you're not working, one loses confidence in oneself. The purpose he had is gone. Professionals have said this for some time. There is a waning. If one stays active, one doesn't become a psychological or a financial burden on one's family or society as fast."
A dapper man with a deep, resonant voice, Griffiths speaks with confidence and authority about his future. Slowing down and tapering off are not part of his program. "I wouldn't go back a year for anybody, because every year is going to be full of something for me. Every year is where you belong."
Griffiths' outlook, which he emphasized is his own and may not be common to others his age or older, is shared by Val Perfater, who retired eight months ago after working 20 years as a secretary. . Perfater, who is past 50, found after living in Florida that "I didn't feel like a senior citizen yet." Having worked as a legal secretary and office manager for a Washington law firm, she said, "I was used to a lot of people around. I guess I was just not ready for ceramics and bridge."
Perfater said she is ready to return to work, full-time, and to continue where she left off. "I'm ready for a new challenge. That may sound surprising, but I am. I feel as good as I ever did. I've always felt that my main positive qualities are that I have a pleasant disposition, that I'm easy to get along with. It doesn't have anything to do with age. For a boss interested in hanky panky, I realize I'm not the one, but I'm not interested in that, either."
Wanting to go back to work for an older person does not always mean that he or she will find a job. The job market in the area and nationally is especially tight now. Interviews with several older persons indicate that their efforts to find work are often frustrating and ultimately futile.
One agency that has had considerable success in finding jobs for older people is Over 60 Counseling & Employment Service, a nonprofit agency based in Chevy Chase, which-- despite its name -- serves people 50 and over. Gladys Sprinkle, director of Over 60, said that her agency is able to place about 60 percent of the 800 older persons who annually seek help in finding work.
Sprinkle, who is 63, bristles at the idea that an older person who wants to work needs to be coddled. "Older people, just because they're older, are not over the hill." Sprinkle said that businesses hiring older workers find "a lot of times that they get a lot of experience for their money."
In fact, some businesses now are turning to older workers as a solution to their search for hard-to-find skills. Faced with a shortage of available machinists, Lockheed Aircraft rehired 1,000 retired employes. Bankers Life and Casualty Co. in Chicago, which has no mandatory retirement age, has begun a Temporary Workers Pool to employ retired company workers in part-time positions, saving the company the cost of employment agency fees and the expense resulting from employing workers unfamiliar with company procedures.
The apparent developing trend away from early retirement, should it continue, could help ease the increasing strain on the Social Security trust fund, some experts said. America's population is getting older, and the demographic projections are being updated. According to Sheppard, now associate director for research at the National Council on Aging, the Social Security Administration projects that 36 million Americans will be 65 or older by the year 2000. Ten years ago the projection was that only 28.8 million Americans would be 65 or older by 2000. The most startling increase, Sheppard said, will be in the population 80 or older. The 65-plus population will grow about 20 percent, but the 80-plus population will grow 70 percent assuming no further progress in biomedical research, Sheppard said.
Faced with the prospect of a greater proportion of its population 65 or older and with more of that aging population living longer, an extended work life for those Americans who choose it may provide a partial answer.
Anna Marie Buchmann, vice president for human resources of Bankers Life and Casualty, said that her company's experience with older workers has been "very positive." She described older workers as being generally competent, proud of their work, conscientious and good role models. "If older people choose to work, they are among our better workers," she said. "They are among the vibrant, ageless people."