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A New Wrinkle in Workforce

Times Staff Writer

Dressed in painter’s whites, Nick Williams points out his toughest job, a two-story Colonial with shingles that he painstakingly scraped, sanded and painted by hand.

“I was on a 32-foot ladder most of the time,” said Williams, eyes twinkling. “But I was only 82 then.”

Now 10 years older, Williams is still climbing ladders and painting homes all over Ventura. He labors six days a week, a pace he intends to keep until “more than my knees give out.”

Far from settling into retirement, Williams and a growing number of people 75 and older are continuing to work, some because they have to, and others, such as Williams, because they want to.

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There’s the 81-year-old Minnesota schoolteacher who retired after 60 years last summer, only to return to the classroom in September as a substitute. In rural Wyoming, a 93-year-old surveyor pounds his own stakes five days a week.

Ella Clarke Nuite of Georgia has got them all beat. Honored last fall as “America’s Oldest Worker,” Nuite, 101, still pitches in daily at her family’s bottled water business, filling orders and doing the books.

For this hardy crowd, work keeps their bodies fit and their minds active. It gives their lives vitality and purpose, they say, while bringing in income that is a bonus for some and a necessity for others.

“My children and many of my friends think I’m crazy,” said a grinning Williams, white hair escaping his painter’s cap in unruly wisps. “They’re probably right.”

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These older workers are an example of what the U.S. workforce will look like in years to come as people live longer, healthier lives.

The number of employed workers 75 and older grew from 669,000 in 1994 to just under 1 million last year, according to Labor Department statistics. Those numbers will increase as the large baby boom generation ages.

“It’s really like a big steamroller that’s coming,” said Martin Rome, spokesman for Experience Works, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates employment opportunities for seniors.

For many of those older seniors, work is not a choice but a necessity.

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Whether outliving retirement savings or facing lower-than-expected investment returns, this population is finding that Social Security isn’t enough to cover their bills.

Even before the current debate over Social Security’s future, many Americans seemed doubtful they could retire without working at least part time.

In a 2003 survey, the AARP, the nation’s largest senior citizens organization, found that 68% of those between the ages of 50 and 70 said they expected to work past normal retirement age. Financial need was the No. 1 reason cited.

In California, 523,000 people older than 65 are still working, said Bonnie Parks, of the state’s Employment Development Department. Of those, 144,000 are in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, Parks said.

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Companies are more open to hiring older people because of labor shortages, Parks said. Recent retirees are being coaxed back to work in the fields of nursing, accounting and retail, she said.

But once workers reach about 75, finding work becomes much more difficult. Employers worry that those in their 80s and 90s might not have the strength or mental capacity to get the job done, said Parks, who runs the employment department’s Senior Advocate Office.

“They think that once you get gray hair and wrinkles, the brain stops working,” she said. “But like everything else, it depends on the individual. A large segment of the population remains creative and mentally acute into a very late age.”

Rome’s organization points to Nuite as a prime example of how seniors can successfully stay in the workforce.

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The great-grandmother easily rattled off dates from her past and explained nuances of the family water business in a recent interview. Hearing loss is her biggest problem, she said, especially when she uses a telephone that doesn’t amplify voices.

A trained dietitian, Nuite did other jobs until she inherited Windsor Spring Water Co. in 1961. She kept the business going after her husband died, Nuite said, delivering 16-pound water-cooler bottles until she turned 80.

Two grandsons now help, and Nuite oversees operations from the 100-acre Civil War-era plantation home that her parents bought in 1930. Windsor Spring’s water is drawn from a creek a quarter-mile away.

In addition to the water business, Nuite manages nine rental properties that she bought and rehabbed 20 years ago. Keeping them rented and in good repair takes a lot of her time, she said.

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“I wouldn’t do it for so long if I didn’t enjoy it,” she said of her daily schedule. “It’s just a part of me.”

Deciding when it is time to step aside is more difficult when an employer wants to make the decision for the older worker.

Before 1978, mandatory retirement was widespread in the United States. That year, Congress made it illegal to force a worker out before age 70, and in 1986 compulsory retirement was abolished altogether.

Companies today must show that older workers can no longer perform duties before forcing them out, Parks said. To avoid legal challenges, “golden parachutes” and other financial incentives have become the standard way to usher aging workers out, she said.

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In an earlier day, Lucille Decker’s teaching career might have ended before she was ready to set down her dry-erase marker. But the 81-year-old resident of Princeton, Minn., said she was never pressured to retire.

It was her decision to finally call it quits last June, Decker said, after 60 years of teaching first grade. But the leisurely pace of retirement didn’t last long.

“Miss Decker,” as she is known to students, was back in the classroom three months later, as a full-time substitute.

“I like being where the action is,” Decker said. “And I just love first grade. They are so eager to learn, and that’s when they learn to read. It’s so fun to see the light go on when they get it.”

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A legend at South Elementary in Princeton, Decker has taught not only the parents of the current crop of students but their grandparents too, said longtime school secretary Sandy Lacher.

In recent years, some parents have complained that Decker was too old for the job, Lacher said. But Decker proves them wrong with her energy and readiness to incorporate new classroom methods, she said.

With Decker’s help, the school last year won a prestigious state award for reading. In addition to her teaching duties, Decker has served as a reading coach for struggling students.

Normally reserved, Decker goes all out for an annual faculty variety show, Lacher said. One year, she played a high-kicking football player, and another year, she was a singing Spice Girl, complete with short skirt and high boots.

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“The audience just waited for Lucille to come on and do her thing,” Lacher said.

People who continue working into late age today are mainly professionals, those with their own business or on a second or third career, Rome said.

But for those who must work, the added income means the difference between living and just getting by, Rome said.

Williams, who lives in a Ventura trailer park and buys his clothes at thrift stores, could survive on his $975 monthly Social Security check and his few hundred dollars of investment income.

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But that would leave nothing for the pleasures of his life -- contributing to favored charities, dining out with friends and traveling.

Each summer, he drives his battered VW van across the country to attend the big cultural festival in Chautauqua, N.Y. His family used to have a lakeshore cottage there, and he can’t imagine skipping his annual slate of concerts, ballet performances and lectures, Williams said.

He attributes his spryness to working nearly every day. Maintaining his balance on a 6-foot ladder comes from years of experience, he said.

Sometimes he works for free, such as the year he spent painting -- “between jobs” -- the Unitarian Church in Ventura that he attends. “The prep work is pretty tough. I can only do it for about five hours a day,” Williams said of scraping and sanding. “But it keeps me in shape. I don’t complain about whether it hurts me or not, because it benefits me.”

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Twenty years ago, Williams watched his two older sisters waste away from Alzheimer’s disease in their 70s. That’s when he decided to stay busy for as long as he could.

“I’ll work as long as I’m physically able and as long as people hire me,” he said. “I don’t tell people my age, because you probably wouldn’t hire a 92-year-old house painter.”

Lloyd Baker, 93, says his daily labors as a surveyor mean that he can “do what I want and eat what I want.” He employs five people at his civil engineering/land surveying firm in Thayne, Wyo.

On a recent morning, Baker had to shovel so much snow before hitting ground that he and his crew got in only three stakes before noon.

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To make up for lost time, they ate a quick lunch before heading back into the snow.

“We were supposed to put 20 stakes in, but the snow’s been so heavy,” he said.

Baker says he still needs the income but that keeping his employees on the job is just as important. So he works five days a week.

“This is the best part of life,” said the lean man. “I work all week and dance on the weekends.”

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Baker had a long career as a civil engineer, helping design dams in Wyoming, Arizona and California. He also taught physics for a few years and then went to work for Bechtel Corp. before retiring in 1973.

He moved back to his native Wyoming to start his small firm and has been at it ever since.

Like the others, Baker attributes his longevity to his active lifestyle. But experts in aging say that keeping a work schedule late into life does not necessarily add years.

A long-term study of people who have lived past 100 shows that the most important factors in determining longevity are family genes, staying lean, not smoking and the ability to handle stress.

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“Working doesn’t necessarily predict longevity as much as longevity allows people to work longer,” said JaeMi Pennington, a research assistant at the New England Centenarian Study in Boston.

All of that is academic to Baker, who says that if he weren’t working so hard he’d probably spend his days playing golf or finding a quiet fishing hole.

“Maybe when I’m older,” he said.


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