When Mike McClain pictured retirement, he thought of deserts and canyons.
The 66-year-old had planned to leave the workforce this year and spend more time outdoors, hiking and camping. That was before he was laid off from his job in telecommunications in 2009.
McClain now works as a factory mechanic in Union, Missouri, and his retirement plans are on hold indefinitely. His situation is becoming more common; an estimated 20 percent of Americans over the age of 65 are either working or looking for a job. For some, work is a way to stay active and involved in their communities, while others, like McClain, simply can’t afford to retire.
After he lost his job, McClain took a series of part-time positions and started withdrawing money from his IRA to keep up with his mortgage payments.
“There’s not a lot of companies beating the bushes looking for somebody in their late 60s to do anything, really,” he said. “I couldn’t even get a job as a Walmart greeter. That felt pretty low.”
Finally, he was able to land his current job as a mechanic at the plastics factory, where younger workers jokingly refer to him as “Grandpa.”
Living longer, working later
Many older Americans, like McClain, continue working out of necessity. During the 2008 recession, retirement savings lost an estimated $2.8 trillion.
According to economists, however, retirement accounts have more or less recovered since then.
“Where we probably saw the biggest delays in retirement were people who were looking to retire right around the time the recession hit, not necessarily this far afterwards,” said Charles Gascon, regional economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “By this time, you’ve gone through most of these ebbs and flows.”
Perhaps even more tellingly, said Gascon, the trend of working later in life first began in the late 1990s. Since then, the proportion of workers over age 65 has steadily increased.
The reasons why are complicated, but a big driver appears to be increasing life expectancies.
Since 1950, life expectancies for men and women in the U.S. have risen by about six years. Across both sexes, men and women at age 65 can expect to live another 20 years.
Saving for 20 or 30 years of life after retirement can be difficult, said Washington University Professor of Social Work Nancy Morrow-Howell.
“The very fundamental ideas of how we envisioned an institutionalized retirement are now out of sync with the current demographic reality,” Morrow-Howell said. “We have this new longevity and outdated policies, programs and organizations.”
‘There is quite a bit of time to fill’
Beyond economics, older people are also opting to remain in the workforce as a way to stay active and maintain social connections.
Ballwin resident Alan Nissenbaum, 67, always planned to continue working after retirement.
He retired in his mid-50s after selling Wonder Novelty Company, a family-owned business that brought entertainment machines, like Pac-Man and pinball, to St. Louis businesses on revenue sharing.
“There is quite a bit of time to fill when you retire,” Nissenbaum said. “It's about making all of that time amount to something.”
After hearing a presentation at his local congregation on the link between lack of education and incarceration, he decided to start volunteering with elementary students in the Parkway School District.
Although he appreciates the extra money he earns from substitute teaching, for Nissenbaum, it’s about helping to give back to his community.
He said he tries to encourage his students to continue their education beyond high school and he likes to give them tips for getting their first jobs, like having a firm handshake.
“I try and get invested with real skin in the game as far as being interested in their futures,” he said.
‘You need to be flexible’
While Mike McClain is now doing dirty, physically-demanding work after years in a white-collar job, he said he enjoys working at the plastics factory.
For him, fixing machines feels like solving a puzzle. As a kid, he disassembled his first bike and put it all back together again, trying to understand how the parts worked. In his free time, he watched his dad, who worked as a heavy equipment operator, restore old race cars.
“I picked stuff up, just by osmosis,” he said. “Basically, I held the flashlight and watched what was going on.”
After he was laid off, McClain’s knowledge of mechanics helped him transition from a 20-year career in telecommunications to his current job at the plastics factory.
Regardless of your age, he said staying competitive in today’s ever-changing job market means being prepared to change careers.
“I think you need to be flexible,” he said. “You need to be ready to do something different because if you don’t, you’re just going to get rolled over.”
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