More people over 55 are working 9 to 5

Times Staff Writer

Gary Passmore sold his thriving public affairs business and moved to California with retirement in mind -- a little fishing, some travel and a lot of relaxation. Then the stock market took a nosedive, his savings dried up and the blue suits came back out of the closet.

“I love my work and I’m happy with what I do, but it was not a choice,” said Passmore, the 61-year-old director of the Congress of California Seniors, a Sacramento-based advocacy group. “I thought I should go back to work to re-create a nest egg.... I’ll work as long as I can.”

Passmore is one of a growing number of Californians who find themselves working later in life, according to a report released Monday by the California Budget Project. The proportion of women ages 55 to 69 who were working rose 9.2 percentage points between 1995 and 2006; for men, the increase was 10.6 percentage points.


Experts in aging and the workplace called the change significant and said it has been fueled by a complex mix of social factors, good and bad. Longer lives and better health mean people are physically able to work longer. A diminished retirement system and a sharp rise in baby boomers who feel financially unprepared to swap briefcases for golf bags mean that many will be forced to work longer.

Some industries -- healthcare, for one -- are so strapped for qualified workers that older employees have more opportunity to work longer. And a cultural change in the way Americans think about employment means that some may actually want to work -- in second careers, new small businesses or jobs that are less lucrative but more fulfilling.

“Financial security, retirement security, is a lot more precarious,” said Mark Beach, spokesman for AARP California. “That’s the downside. The upside is that a lot of people are looking at work differently. They are embarking on second careers, seeing their work life as multitiered.”

The California Budget Project is a Sacramento-based think tank that works as an advocate for low- and middle-income residents. Its report, which culled data from federal statistics, showed that workers ages 55 to 64 and those from the traditional retirement age of 65 to age 69 are working more than in the past.

Workers in the younger group were employed at a fairly steady rate of about 54% between 1979 and 1995, but then the percentages began to surge -- to about 59% in 2000 and nearly 62% in 2006.

Not surprisingly, the older group worked at a lower rate, but its percentage of workers jumped too. In 1995, a little less than 20% of the older group was employed, while nearly 27% were last year.


Jean Ross, executive director of the Budget Project, said the statistics underscore a sobering reality: “The declining rate in pension coverage and job-based healthcare benefits points to the fact that fewer Californians and Americans may have the financial resources to retire as soon as they’d like to.”

That is certainly the case for Alma Dunstan-McDaniel, who went back to school for a master’s degree in clinical psychology after her divorce a decade ago. The reason: to make ends meet.

Today she’s 68 and works at Support Services for Elders in San Rafael, supervising nursing assistants and others who provide home-care services to clients in their 70s and older. She also has a psychotherapy practice on the side.

“I will have to work until I die,” she said. “I need a job to pay the rent and the bills and drive my 17-year-old car.... That’s the name of my game. It’s not particularly pretty.”

Although the Budget Project did not look at statistics nationally, census numbers show that California’s trend is repeated across the country, with a slightly higher rate of older Americans working longer.

One big question not addressed by the Budget Project is where these older workers are finding employment. Are they able to stay in good jobs longer because corporate America has begun to value them? Or are they being shoved out the door early and forced to find less lucrative positions elsewhere?

Helen Dennis, a specialist in aging, employment and retirement, believes it’s a bit of both. She cites a “new awareness” in the business world that a huge amount of skill and knowledge will be lost, particularly as baby boomers begin to leave the workforce in large numbers.

However, she said, “as more and more companies realize the value of mature workers, at the same time, ageism still exists.”

Passmore said that his organization has not performed a systematic study of the matter, but one look at the California economy paints a pretty clear picture: Manufacturing has shrunk, service industries have grown, and that’s where the job openings tend to be.

“People are losing good-paying jobs they may have had over a number of years as corporations try to limit their exposure to retirement costs,” he said. “It isn’t necessarily fast food, but given the nature of the economy, it’s more likely to be lower-paying service-sector jobs.”

One major exception is the healthcare industry, where shortages of nurses, radiologists and mental health workers, among other skilled positions, mean that hospitals are scrambling to keep workers on the job as long as possible.

“The healthcare industry is still growing -- outpatient care, outpatient surgery, diagnostic centers -- and we’re all competing for what is an aging workforce today,” said Victor Buzachero, senior vice president of human resources at San Diego-based Scripps Health.

Three times in the last three years, the network of five hospitals and a large multidisciplinary clinic has won praise from AARP as one of the best places in the country for workers over the age of 50.

To woo older workers into staying, Scripps has instituted programs such as a phased retirement option, which allows eligible employees to cut down on their hours while keeping full medical benefits. Currently, nearly 40 people age 55 and older with 10 years or more on the job are taking part.

Nurse Carolyn Jones, 63, is one of them. While it would be a stretch for her to retire outright and still afford health insurance, nursing is a stressful job, with 12-hour shifts, life-or-death decisions and a big dose of hard physical labor.

Normally, a full-time nurse works six 12-hour days every two weeks, said the 27-year veteran of the intensive care unit. But when Scripps began offering phased retirement three years ago, she dropped down to four days and then to the minimum of two. She now works every other Saturday and Sunday.

Nursing, she says, is her first love, and Scripps has found a way to keep her coming back to their Chula Vista hospital for the near future.

“I’ve known nurses,” she said, “that have worked to 70.”