Senior Workers: A Hot Commodity

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This past April the Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing that examined ways to encourage employers to retain and hire older Americans who choose to continue working during their retirement years.

While there have been numerous hearings and reports about challenges that our growing number of seniors over 65 will create for Social Security and Medicare systems, there has been considerably less focus on the importance of older Americans in the workforce and their role in the future. At the behest of many employers and senior citizens, Congress is beginning to focus on ways to retain an older work force, as well as attract seniors to work in their companies.

The focus of the April hearing was to examine a shift in thinking about retirement. Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI) testified at the hearing that “with more Americans retiring and fewer workers to replace them, companies face a labor force shortage-we could face a gap of about 18 million workers by 2020.” He continued, “We need to encourage businesses efforts to recognize the talent of our nation’s seniors and take a look at laws that make if difficult to attract and keep older workers.” The laws he was referring to relate to the ability of older Americans to access 401K funds, pensions and medical insurance, while being employed on a part-time basis. Mandatory retirement age requirements were also examined and questioned.

According to a recent survey by AARP, 80% of baby boomers expect to work into their retirement years; while only about 13% of people over 65 are currently employed. Several Goodwin House residents are among this working group.

Goodwin House resident William (Bill) Hamilton believes that more seniors are not working today because of the mandatory age requirements that many government agencies and private companies have in place. He retired from the Department of State at 62, when that was the mandatory age requirement – it is 65 now. “I think the mandatory age for retirement should be based on a variety of factors including the physical demands of the job, but generally the age should be 70.”

Fortunately, Mr. Hamilton is still able to work for the Department of State today under a program called “When and As Employed (WAE)”. This program is for seniors and is an hourly contract. He has a flexible schedule that allows him to work when he likes-based on the needs of the office-but generally he averages 15 hours per week.

Mr. Hamilton reports that while some of the work is monotonous, much of it is very interesting. What he does is review old files to determine whether the information can be declassified. He says this is area where seniors excel since they have had the benefit of previously working on these policy issues and can best determine what must be protected even after 25 years.

Similarly, several Goodwin House residents are still working in their own businesses. In these cases, the jobs may not have the same flexibility, but they do help keep them engaged and involved which research shows helps to keep individuals healthier and happier.

Frank and Sally McDermott love being able to continue their professional careers. While Mr. McDermott, who is 84, goes to work every day with his son, who has taken over the role of president of his company, Mrs. McDermott, who is a young 82, goes only a few days a week. Their company was founded after Mr. McDermott, who had worked for the Federal Aviation Administration, was encouraged to start his own business. The company specializes in voice tapes, i.e. “black boxes,” that are installed in airplanes and help in assessing the causes of airplane accidents. “I have always been a determined person-that is why I continue to work today-I enjoy contributing to the field, and there are still opportunities to ensure safety in the field of aviation,” said Mr. McDermott. “Although our commute actually increased from going down to the recreation room in our house to driving out to our son’s new office in Great Falls, there is nothing negative about living in a retirement community and continuing to work. Lots of people we know could not understand why we did not want to stay in our home in McLean-but I see what happens to seniors who don’t have enough to do. We stay busy at work and have become involved at Goodwin House, too,” said Mr. McDermott. “Just the other day my one of my sons said, ‘Did I ever thank you for making the decision to move to Goodwin House? I want you to know that I realize in many ways you did that for us.’,” said Mrs. McDermott. For them it made sense to move when they were offered a lovely, large apartment with a spectacular view in an active community.

Another resident who is still professionally active is Admiral Mike McCaffree. He retired from the Navy in 1988 after 34 years. While the military system for retirement differs and is not tied to age, he was ready to retire from the military, but not from working altogether. He began consulting and held part-time positions with several think-tanks. “At one time, I held part-time positions at three different companies resulting in a 40-hour week!” Today, he works as a part-time mentor and senior research analyst for the Center for Naval Analyses and points out that he is not the oldest employee in the office.

Admiral McCaffree also feels that there should not be an age limit. “I know some 75-year-olds who are not mentally and physically well, and I know people in their 90s that are mentally sharp and physically strong. It has nothing to do with age,” he said. When asked why he and his wife Lynn moved to Goodwin House while still being gainfully employed, he said, “Our house and yard began to own us! They were requiring more time and expense with each passing year, so we decided to make one move instead of moving to a condo and then moving again in a few more years.” He continued, “People thought we were too young to move to a retirement community, but we have not regretted moving one day since we arrived in October 2001. In fact, we now exercise five days a week-we did not do that at home-we socialize more here than we did in Annandale, and we still have our outside lives, too.”

Valerie Pagnelli, a senior retirement consultant with Watson Wyatt, who testified at the Senate Committee on Aging hearing, said, “The clear implication is that phased retirement programs can support older workers to remain in the workforce and increase the supply of experienced workers over the coming decade.”

It appears that seniors will be in great demand in the future, and as in many other aspects of retirement, Goodwin House residents are leading the way in these trends.

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