Retirees Reinvent the Concept


Retiring seemed like the logical thing to do.

She was 62, in good financial shape, and her husband had already retired. So Betty Pouncey collected the goodbye cards, attended the farewell lunches and left a job she loved.

"We did [travel] for a while, but that soon got old," said Pouncey, who is now 72. "Then I remodeled the house, and that got old. Once you get caught up on all the things you say you want to get caught up on, it gets humdrum. . . . Retirement is not what it's cracked up to be. At least it wasn't for me."

Retirement has always been the ultimate goal for the American worker, the payoff for hectic years of work. People have seen it as a time when their lives become their own, when they can rest, travel and play at their own pace.

But, like Pouncey, more and more people are finding that traditional notions of old age and retirement are about as useful as an eight-track tape player. As people live longer and enter old age in better health, the generally accepted goals for this stage of life do not apply quite as universally--if they ever did.

A national survey by the Los Angeles Times Poll portrays a generation of older Americans who are poised not only to defy long-standing views of aging but to redefine this stage of life. And the expectations of those now entering this generation are different from their predecessors, a trend that will only intensify, experts say, as baby boomers age.

"They're not ready to withdraw, sit on the periphery and watch the parade go by from their rocking chairs," said Helen Dennis, a retirement specialist and USC lecturer.

Expectations for quality of life are high, Dennis said, and with good cause.

The Times poll, conducted last fall, found that three of four respondents felt younger than their actual ages--about 19 years younger on average. Those in their 70s and 80s said they felt as if they were in their 60s. Those who were in their 60s said they felt they were in their early 50s.

Many Say They Retired Too Soon

This sense of youth and well-being is forcing what Dennis called a "retirement revolution." People are going back to school, becoming entrepreneurs, embarking on substantive volunteer endeavors or simply continuing to work in what some now call "the third age" or "the second half."

The poll found that nearly 25% of retired respondents--including Pouncey--said they had retired too soon.

The idea of having decades to look forward to--after kids are raised and careers have ended--is hardly new. But historically, it was enjoyed only by the wealthy and those lucky in health, said Ron Manheimer, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

"Now we have a democratization," he said. "People now have a choice and they have to make choices about how they want to spend discretionary time."

According to the poll, many plan to spend part of their retirements working. Of all respondents, 44% said they would work part time after reaching retirement age. Another 14% said they would work full time.

As with the millionaire lottery winner who vows to keep her job, work at this stage of life is not always about money.

Darnell Watson, a Los Angeles resident, worked at Standard Paper Box Corp. for nearly 44 years. He started in 1946 and worked as a cutter pressman, then as foreman. He retired in 1988.

But saying the 76-year-old Watson is retired does not come close to describing his life.

"I'm a workaholic," he confessed. "I've always worked a job and gone to school or I've worked two jobs."

Up between 5 and 6 a.m., Watson drives all over Los Angeles County, hauling for hire in his three-quarter-ton pickup truck. The entrepreneur also has a plumbing and electrical business. And he sometimes travels across the country, hauling the belongings of people moving from Los Angeles back to towns in the South.

In between the driving and hauling, he is heavily involved with his church, Phillips Temple C.M.E. He is president of the men's chorus and sings in the cathedral choir. He delivers food to the needy each week. As president of the parish's senior citizens' group, he takes church members on errands.

Then there's the Zamora Street Block Club, he added, and the Masons. He also helps out more at home, because his wife is in poor health.

"I'll tell you why," Watson said. "I can't sit around. I'm the type of person who has to keep moving. Just to sit around and watch TV, I don't think I'd last long. Most of what I'm doing, it's because I want to do it, not because I have to. I enjoy it."

When retired respondents were asked what they liked least about retirement, 11% said they missed work.

What keeps people working or searching for ways to fulfill their lives after work? The answer lies in the meaning of work, experts say, beyond its obvious economic purpose.

"Work is a tremendous social environment," said Dennis, the retirement specialist. "Generally, people spend more time at work with colleagues and friends than they do with their families. Those people who are currently retiring have had long-term experiences with an employer. They've lived through marriages, births, deaths, Christmases and Thanksgivings."

Some retirees find they've lost the gratifying aspects of work: the camaraderie of colleagues and friends, the challenge, the feeling of satisfaction, a sense of purpose and the structure that work gives to life.

"Even though they complain about it, when they get up in the morning they know why they're getting up and why they're going out," Dennis said. "They know someone is depending on them."

Work is the measure by which many in America define themselves. Of those polled by The Times, 45% agreed with the statement: "When you give up your job, you give up a large part of who you are." Fifty-one percent disagreed.

The Los Angeles Times Poll contacted 1,589 adults nationwide, including 807 respondents 60 and older, by telephone Oct. 20-23. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Learning how to construct a life--and a self-image--without work can be difficult. But as more people age in good health, it is an important and often overlooked part of retirement preparation.

Betty Pouncey had been a securities counselor, answering questions from investors across the country. In retrospect, she said, her reasons for retiring were less engaging than her work.

"Retirement is a real glamorous thing that you look at on the horizon," said Pouncey, who lives in Mobile, Ala. "You think when you get to that you'll be living. . . . But life has more meaning for you when you're busy. When you're doing something you enjoy doing."

Now she is a caretaker for her ailing husband--a nearly full-time job. She also spends time with her granddaughter. She has started sewing, and volunteering with charitable groups.

Social Security Penalty Is Ending

The nation is acknowledging the need and desire of some older people to work. Under legislation passed by Congress last month, workers 65 to 69 will be able to earn as much as they can without losing any Social Security benefits.

The bill, which President Clinton has said he will sign, repeals a Depression-era law that reduced payments for these workers by $1 for every $3 they earned beyond $17,000.

According to the poll, most Americans are in no hurry to get rid of older co-workers. Three in five respondents said people should be encouraged to work beyond retirement age because of their experience.

Of respondents who had moved into retirement, 64% were glad they retired when they did. What they sought in retirement was the working person's most precious commodity: free time.

These days, said Verla Kasmerchak of Schaumburg, Ill., "I do what I want, when I want. It's freedom I never really had before."

Kasmerchak, a poll respondent in her early 70s, retired from her job as a manager at a communications firm because she was afraid to leave her mother home alone. Kasmerchak spent five years caring for her until her mother died.

Like Kasmerchak, more than half of the poll respondents cited free time as one of the biggest benefits of retirement: Among women, 17% cited sleeping late and 12% listed more time with their families. Among men, 24% cited not working and 9% said time for hobbies.

"I wish I had retired earlier," said 81-year-old Willard C. Kroma of Louisville, Ohio. He retired at 62 from Republic Steel in good health and financially secure. Kroma and his wife, Theresa, spent the early years of retirement traveling, boating and enjoying friends.

"If you have the finances to retire, I advise everybody to retire before 65," said Kroma, a poll respondent. "Of course, you have to have something to do. You can't be retired and sitting in a rocking chair. It's not good health-wise. It's not good for your mind."

Now, more than ever, retirement is a wide-ranging experience. Some make a smooth transition, often because they have planned for it. Too often, retirement planning focuses on financial matters, while the simple questions--such as "What will I do with my time?"--are not addressed, Dennis said.

"The period of retirement can be the most fulfilling and gratifying period of one's life," she said. "It doesn't happen by remote control. It happens with some thought and planning."

Those who retire in their 60s may have 20 or more years ahead of them. With so much time, playing golf, reading or the occasional trip is not enough for some.

In 2011, the first wave of the nation's 76 million baby boomers will turn 65, according to the federal Administration on Aging. By the year 2030, one in five Americans will be 65 or older.

Baby boomers are even more reluctant to give up working and other meaningful activities than their predecessors. According to the Times poll, 52% of respondents 37 to 53 years old said they expect to work part time when they reach retirement age. Another 12% said they would work full time.

As they have done with so many other things, baby boomers will alter the face of retirement even more than previous generations did. "I think when the boomers retire, retirement is going to be cool," Dennis said. "They don't do anything that's not cool."

According to the Times poll, many older respondents share the desire to do something meaningful; 51% said they perform volunteer work.

But too often older volunteers stuff envelopes or perform menial tasks that do not fully use their skills. So, more older people are creating volunteer opportunities for themselves, said Marc Freedman, author of "Prime Time: How Baby Boomers will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America." One example: a group of retired doctors who run a free clinic in San Mateo, Calif.

The needs of the nation's growing older population prompted the creation of the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement in 1988.

At the center, classes are taught by retirees. Students are shown easy pathways to community involvement. Soon the center will have a companion institution, "The Center for Un-Retirement," to assist those who want to return to work.

Though some will return to the work force out of desire, others will work because they must.

"There are people who are financially struggling in retirement, which presents fewer choices in their lifestyle," Dennis said. "They're on a fixed income, have high medical costs, are living alone."

Of the respondents who are working after retirement, only 4% said they needed the money. But 17% of those who were retired said what they liked least about retirement was not having enough money.

In Los Angeles, there is a waiting list for a federal program that helps low-income older people return to work.

Operated by several agencies, including the city's Department of Aging, the Title V Senior Services Program works with people who are retired or have been laid off.

"More than anything else, we give them the confidence to get a job," said Marco Perez, program director. "They need to be encouraged. They need to realize there's nothing wrong with getting a job--no matter how old they are."

While participation is based on economic need, money is not the only attraction for participants like Florence Cubit, who retired after working in child care for 27 years.

"I found out you have to do something in life; you can't just be here" doing nothing, said Cubit, who declined to give her age.

Journeying back into the world of work was not easy. She had to sharpen her computer skills and learn to navigate the Internet. She had to learn which skills employers want. The city program trained her and found her a public library job.

Now enjoying her second career, Cubit said she has extra money and a job that matters.

"After your kids leave, you're sitting there with nothing," she said. "I tell people, 'Start doing things in life. You were put here to create and work.' "


Views on Retirement

In a national Times pol, a mojority of people under age 65 said they paln to continue working past retirement age. AAamong retirees, about a quarter said they retired too soon.


How the Poll Was Conducted

The Times Poll contacted 1,589 adults nationwide, including 807 respondents 60 years of age and over, by telephone Oct. 20-23, 1999. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and non-listed numbers could be contacted. The entire sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and region. The margin of sampling error for the entire sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points; for those 60 and older, it is plus or minus 4 points. For certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.

Source: Times Poll


Elizabeth Armet, assistant director of The Times Poll, contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World