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Seniors may have to work longer to retire. It helps that some gigs cater to them

About 1 in 5 Americans over the age of 65 are working at least part time. That is expected to rise to nearly 1 in 3 over the coming decade.
(Peter DaSilva / For The Times)

Karen Winters is an artist who works from home. Rex Shields is a building inspector who is always out in the field. The two are different in most respects except one: They’re long past traditional retirement age, but working. They both say that they’ll never retire.

If the recent stock market plunge left you panicky and wondering whether you’ll be able to finance your retirement, Winters and Shields should give you some comfort. Like millions of retirees, they’re working and earning good money — primarily because they want to, not just for pay. And today’s rapidly expanding freelance economy gives seniors who want to work more opportunities than ever before.

“When I don’t work, I don’t know what to do with myself,” says Shields, 81.

Adds Winters: “If I’m not at my easel, I’m marketing or studying my craft. It’s just like a real job, but it’s fun,” she says. “As long as I have my eyesight and the use of my hands, I intend to keep producing.”

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Winters and Shields are a bit unusual in that they’re both working full time. Many of their contemporaries have cut back to part-time schedules to accommodate travel or grandkids.

But working past retirement age is a rapidly growing trend — and the collapse of the traditional labor market because of coronavirus shutdowns is only likely to accelerate it. Roughly 1 in every 5 Americans over the age of 65 are working at least part time today. And that proportion is expected to rise to nearly 1 in 3 over the coming decade. In fact, seniors are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Silvernest aims to be a combination of Airbnb and Match.com for empty-nesters who would like to rent out a room.

A recent study by payroll experts at ADP found that roughly one-third of contract workers are over the age of 55. Roughly 40% of these individuals consider themselves “retired,” even though they continue to earn money. More than any other age group, seniors maintain that the primary reason they’re working is to “do what I enjoy.”

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Dozens of factors, including healthier lifestyles and rising longevity, are fueling the trend. Longer, healthier lives make seniors better able to work — and more convinced that they may need to work longer to avoid outliving their savings.

“Even when earning the money is not an absolute necessity, there is something reassuring about having some money coming in so that you are not drawing down savings, particularly in uncertain times like these,” says Nancy Collamer, retirement coach at MyLifestyleCareer.com.

That’s more important than ever as concerns about the coronavirus turn the stock market into a terrifying roller coaster ride. Retirees who are forced to draw down savings during a downturn can end up depleting their nest eggs far faster than they’d planned.

“When you look at the money you have, the money you’ll need and how long you’re going to need it, all of a sudden working a few more years looks pretty good,” says Joanne Cleaver, author of “The Career Lattice.” “Working gives you some control — some power over your destiny — even if it’s just for a few more years.”

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The so-called gig economy — powered by online platforms that connect people with jobs, renters and clients — also plays a role. Where the traditional workforce arguably discriminates against older workers, online platforms are age-agnostic. Most accept anyone who meets certain requirements, such as passing a background check and being old enough to sign a legal contract.

In fact, many online platforms cater to older people, realizing that they have both experience and assets. A site called Silvernest, for instance, aims to find full-time renters for seniors who have extra space. The site helps older homeowners find renters, matching background-checked renters with compatible empty-nesters using EHarmony-like criteria such as needs, likes and points in common.

Work at Home Vintage Experts — a.k.a. WAHVE — specifically courts young retirees for flexible and part-time jobs in insurance, human resources and accounting.

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CoolWorks, which connects workers with jobs in national parks and resorts, also prefers active retirees for their experience and their “soft skills” — such as good manners and patience.

Even the gig sites that don’t specifically cater to seniors are at least welcoming. And seniors have started to embrace them. Athleen Novack, 73, for instance, rents her house out through Airbnb. She says her whole house is rented roughly half the time. She’s lucky enough to still have renters today as Airbnb listings have dropped off for many hosts.

The rental income more than pays Novack’s mortgage and, during normal times, travel expenses. It also allows her the occasional luxury of a big splurge, like the time she took seven members of her family to the Bahamas for her 70th birthday.

“Am I lucky, or what?” says the retired schoolteacher. “I don’t have any money worries at this point. I just like the opportunity.”

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Naturally, money is a motivating factor for other seniors.

Juli Thurston retired early to take care of ailing parents. But when her parents got well enough to care for themselves, she was at an age where it’s difficult to find a new full-time job. The 60-year-old is now testing out side hustles, such as working part time for the U.S. Census Bureau.

Penny Goss, 58, has a similar story. She’s still caring for her dad, but had been doing dog- and house-sits to earn extra cash. She helped people organize their homes, too, charging $20 per hour. Goss, who lives in San Diego, advertised her availability on Nextdoor, a free neighborhood social networking site. She says the response had been so dramatic she had to hire someone to help her. Now, with coronavirus shutdowns, she is on hiatus. But she adds, “I have to believe that a lot of people are going to want to get out when this is over.”

What motivates many seniors like Winters, however, is the ability to try something completely new — often a passion project. When she was working and raising children, she says, she simply didn’t have time for art. But when the kids moved away, she decided to scale back on her day job to pursue her artistic passions.

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Within months, she was selling paintings. She never looked back.

Shields studied engineering in college, but worked for the police force for 30 years. When he retired, he wanted to put his engineering skills to work. He started taking jobs in construction, ran his own concrete business, and then transitioned into commercial building inspecting. He supervises a crew of five to 10 contractors and loves what he does.

“I never was a golfer, and you can only travel so much,” he says. “This is a good job. You get to think every day. As long as I can take the vacations I want, I’ll keep working.”

Kristof is the editor of SideHusl.com, an independent website that reviews money-making opportunities in the gig economy.


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