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Retirement used to happen at 65, but for many reasons, more people are working longer. And baby boomers are expected to swell the ranks.
Published Monday, April 21, 2008 at 4:30 a.m.

SARASOTA “” Five days a week for the past 15 years, Jack Burkhardt has piled in his car and headed to his job running the fresh fish section of Publix’s Sarasota Crossings store.

78 million: Baby boomers, the retirement wave of Americans born from 1946 to 1964

70%: People age 50 to 70 who said in a recent AARP survey that they planned to work into retirement or not retire at all

20%: Workers in Florida past age 55

6,600: Publix workers who are 65 to 75 years old

4.6%: Publix work force 65 to 75

2,300: Publix workers older than 75

800: Publix workers in Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties who are 65 and older
He is on his feet his entire five-plus-hour shift. There are codes to memorize, customer orders to satisfy. Working nights means he has to store inventory and clean the whole seafood area at closing.

Burkhardt’s labors would not be considered extraordinary were it not for his age — 92.

A generation ago, “mature” employees like Burkhardt stood out, even in aging-friendly locales like Southwest Florida.

But today, either out of desire or necessity, tens of thousands of seniors are shunning leisurely retirements by working — and providing a window to the labor force of tomorrow.

Experts say the trend toward working past traditional retirement age will surge nationwide in the next 5 to 10 years, as aging baby boomers — some 78 million Americans born from 1946 to 1964 — begin to retire with better health and more wealth than any other generation in America’s history.

“It’s a pending tsunami that’s going to hit the nation when the baby boomers retire and move on,” said Steve Wing, director of work force initiatives at drug store chain CVS Caremark.

A recent AARP survey of workers ages 50 to 70 found that nearly 70 percent planned to work into retirement years, or not retire at all.

The real effect, however, will come when many workers shed their longtime careers for new jobs that offer more flexibility, fewer hours or other age-specific benefits.

“You don’t hear a lot about this because many employers don’t bother to study the demographics,” said Donald Davis, vice president for work force development with the National Council on Aging, based in Washington, D.C. “And if you don’t look at the demographics, you don’t realize the magnitude of the issue.”

In Florida, where nearly one in five workers already is past age 55, such decisions could have profound implications for the state’s labor force and productivity, at least partially offsetting an anticipated “talent drain” some demographers fear as boomers leave their jobs.

Adding to the phenomenon, at least in the short term, the nation’s flagging economy is forcing some workers to postpone or rethink their retirements.

More ominously, unfunded pension plans and Americans’ collective failure to adequately save for retirement is keeping some older workers in their jobs — and forcing others to re-enter the work force.

“It’s becoming an important trend because adequate preparation by people for retirement through savings has become grossly inadequate,” said Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Samuelson, a part-time Sarasota resident who, at 92, continues to work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Companies unprepared

In a disturbing corollary, many employers appear unequipped to handle the anticipated labor vacuum caused by mass retirements. Businesses generally lack the skills or amenities required to recruit or retain older workers, experts say.

“There are only a handful of companies that are really addressing this,” Tim Dutton, executive director of SCOPE, a Sarasota County community group, said during a senior employment forum this year.

“We’re just not really ahead of it,” Dutton said. “It’s not quite yet a crisis, but it’s clear we need to think more aggressively about this issue.”

Nationally, companies like Xerox, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Borders Books & Music and others have adopted programs to either attract or keep seniors on their payrolls.

Chains like Home Depot Inc. and CVS have even developed “snowbird” programs that allow workers to spend part of the year employed up north and part working in sunbelt states like Florida and Arizona.

At CVS, more than 1,250 employees — most older than 50 — participate in the four-year-old program. Wing said CVS created the program in response to customer demographics.

“The mature worker program gives us a competitive advantage,” he said. “When an older customer comes in, they see someone who looks just like them, which is a plus for us, because our goal is to mirror the populations of the communities we do business in.”

Wing acknowledges that many older CVS employees join the company for its health care insurance, a common need and concern of mature workers.

In Southwest Florida, a handful of employers such as Publix, Walgreens and others have embraced older workers as valuable assets.

At Publix, where 6,600 of the company’s roughly 145,000 employees are 65 to 75 — and some 2,300 of the supermarket chain’s workers are 75-plus — mature workers are a growing force.

In Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties alone, Publix employs nearly 800 who are 65 and older, said Shannon Patten, a chain spokeswoman.

Burkhardt and his counterparts also dispel the conventional wisdom that older workers drive up health care costs and are a heavier burden on corporate benefit coffers. Last year, for instance, Burkhardt used just one day of sick time: He had to take his wife to a doctor’s appointment.

“He never calls in sick. He’s always on time,” said Bill McClain, store manager at Sarasota Crossings’ Publix, of Burkhardt. “He’s the embodiment of why mature associates are so valuable to us.”

McClain, Wing and others tout mature workers’ reliability, loyalty, work ethic and skills. At the same time, they describe senior workers as good mentors to younger employees.

Burkhardt wears glasses and hearing aides and shows few signs of slowing down. He says he has no plans to leave Publix.

“Not unless they fire me,” said Burkhardt, who in 1981 retired to Florida after selling his Indiana home-improvement business. “I loafed for two years, then I got bored.”

Needing to work

Burkhardt and many others who are financially set, or comfortable enough, work largely for personal fulfillment or to stay active.

“I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I didn’t work,” said Helen Wrenn, an 82-year-old receptionist who puts in about 25 hours a week at Sarasota’s Gunn Allen Financial Inc.

Alice Mattingly works because she needs the money: “I live paycheck to paycheck.”

That is why, at 75 and despite a series of health problems including a heart attack and cancer that cost her a lung, she manages Add-A-Closet, a Siesta Key self-storage operation.

Though the $8-an-hour job does not provide health insurance, Mattingly is able to use her wages to supplement Medicaid and Social Security, which provides $700 a month.

“I thought about retirement when I was married, but those plans went by the wayside,” said Mattingly, a widow since 1988.

What the self-storage job lacks in remuneration and benefits, it makes up for in other ways that experts contend are equally critical to seniors.

At Add-A-Closet, Mattingly remains challenged mentally. There is a social aspect to the work, too, she notes, which labor experts say is important.

Because she is at the 247-unit center just 24 hours a week, Mattingly maintains some flexibility and is able to balance her personal life. She spends at least some of her free time with her 3-year-old great-grandson.

That flexibility will become even more critical for Southwest Florida companies as employees begin to consider phasing into the next stage of their lives.

More than any other benefit, flexible work schedules are cited as a key desire by seniors, said Jacquelyn James, director of research at Boston College’s Center for Work and Family, during the NCOA’s annual conference held in late March in Washington, D.C.

Mattingly says it is key to liking her job.

“I’m completely happy with it.”

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