DON’T GET HER WRONG. Denise Dabney loves her job as lead planner in the Mayor’s Office of Jobs & Community Services for the City of Boston. It’s just that the Dorchester resident, who moved from Virginia to Boston with her parents in 1960, wishes she had more time for volunteer work and to pursue other interests, such as her passion for genealogy. But as is the case for many baby boomers, financial and other realities often trump wishful intent.
Dabney, for example, helps support her 90-year-old mother. In addition, she calculates that she’ll be paying college tuition for her youngest child, now 15, until 2019. “I wish I had the financial freedom to do some other things, but that’s not the case for me or for a lot of people like me.”
Though their experiences may differ in the particulars, millions of baby boomers like Denise Dabney are facing similar situations. For reasons ranging from financial necessity to fear of boredom, an increasing number of them are not ready or able to retire, at least not fully. According to the US Census Bureau, 16.2 percent of people 65 and older were in the labor force in 2011, up from 12.1 percent in 1990. Nearly half of these older adults are working full time. Meanwhile, many boomers who were laid off during the recession have had a hard time finding jobs: Workers in their 50s were about 20 percent less likely than those who were 25 to 34 to find new positions, according to a 2012 Urban Institute study. And those they did find tended to pay a lot less than their old ones.
“In the past, we’ve associated retirement with the concept of full-time leisure,” says Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, director of the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. “But the percentage of people who say their ideal is complete leisure continues to go down.” The meaning of “work” has dramatically evolved to include more than just the things you get paid to do. “To many people, ‘work’ now means being productive as long as they can. They want to be recognized as contributing human beings. They want to be valued,” says Pitt-Catsouphes. “The new normal is that retirement is going to include some amount of paid work, at least for some period of time.”
IT’S CONVENIENT to divide boomer workers into two groups: those who want to work and those who need to. But the reality for most people exists somewhere in between. “People who have to work for financial reasons say they get some value out of it,” says Pitt-Catsouphes, “and people who really don’t have to work appreciate the extra income and security.”
At 67, Pat Conaway is driven more by the desire to contribute to his community than to his bank account. After 40 years of teaching mostly special education, Conaway retired from Wayland Public Schools in 2008. He was glad to get away from the paperwork and bureaucracy that goes with being a public school teacher, but he missed some of the things he loved most about the classroom, such as getting young people involved in public service and “fired up about their local environment.”
Because the Natick resident can get by on his pension — “I don’t live high,” he says — Conaway was able to focus on his passion for conservation. Six months after retiring, he established Big Heart Little Feet, organizing volunteers to clean up litter, repair trails, and otherwise improve parks, waterways, and open spaces in Natick and elsewhere. In addition to the students and parents who help out, many of the people who lend a hand are also retirees. “I don’t think they really want to just play golf seven days a week,” he says. “The challenge is to find a way to engage them. What we do as a group is not only useful, but fun.”
For other boomers, like Joan Arruda, continuing to work is not a matter of choice — it is a financial necessity, one made especially difficult in an economy still in recovery after a long recession. In her earlier years, the 58-year-old lifelong Cambridge resident held a series of full-time jobs in her native city. One of them was with Cambridge Public Schools, and during summer breaks Arruda clerked at a Star Market. In 2000, after leaving her position with the school system and spending several years caring for her young children, she went to work full time for the Shaw’s/Star chain, soon advancing to bakery manager. But by the end of the decade, the economy in general and Shaw’s in particular were going through tough times. “People were being laid off, our bonuses were being cut, and stores were being closed,” Arruda says. “I saw my pay and benefits going down every year. I was divorced with two kids. I needed more security.”
Arruda worked for a short time at Whole Foods in 2010, though the job didn’t prove to be a good fit. When the one after that didn’t work out either, Arruda suddenly felt as if she’d exhausted all her options. Yet she didn’t have enough money to retire on, and she was years away from being eligible for Social Security. “I was almost 55 and wasn’t sure what else I could do,” she says. “Remember, I’d been working since I was 14. I’d never been unemployed. I never thought I’d be one of those able-bodied, intelligent people who would be out of work. But then it became real. To be 55 and not know if I was ever going to work again, I cried for days.”
While collecting unemployment, Arruda participated in a program to update her computer skills and took other classes, such as how to write a better resume. The program was run by Operation A.B.L.E., a Boston-based nonprofit that has provided training and employment services for older workers and others since 1982 (the acronym stands for Ability Based on Long Experience). Feeling more prepared, Arruda then applied to employers close to home, including Harvard’s residential dining services. She was hired by the university about two years ago. She now oversees lunch and dinner at Leverett House, the largest single residence hall on campus, and is surprised at her good fortune. “I thought I had reached my zenith being a manager at Shaw’s,” she says. “I’m very happy, and I’m not going anywhere soon.”
Arruda was quick to polish her job skills, but for many older workers, the hardest thing can be “to realize they are not going to get into their former jobs and that they need help,” says Joan Cirillo, Operation A.B.L.E.’s president and CEO. Meanwhile, she adds, “it’s a constant education process to persuade front-line supervisors who make the actual hiring decisions to take the chance on a more mature candidate.” Maybe managers are worried the applicant will be overqualified, maybe they’re concerned about giving instruction to people who could be their parents, or maybe they just suspect older folks are too far behind in technology and social media. Whatever the preconception, Cirillo says, “we know that there are mature workers who can run circles around some younger employees, but it will continue to be a challenge for many older applicants to get rehired.”
A number of private and public programs such as Operation A.B.L.E. are available for older workers seeking new jobs or opportunities. ReServe Greater Boston, for example, helps match professionals who are 55 and older with nonprofits and other organizations that could use their expertise in exchange for a modest stipend. State-sponsored One-Stop Career Centers across Massachusetts offer training opportunities, resume assistance, job clubs, and other services for workers of any age. Many community colleges offer courses in computer literacy and other job skills that can help bring older workers up to speed for today’s workplace. “Every individual needs to think about the next step in their careers, not when they’re 60 but when they’re 40 or 50,” says Boston College’s Pitt-Catsouphes. “It’s like fitness: If you don’t think about exercising until you’re 70, you’ve missed your opportunity.”
DENISE DABNEY HAS CERTAINLY made a point to keep her skills up-to-date. After graduating from Girls’ Latin School in Boston and Brandeis University, then working for more than a decade as a teacher, she returned to Brandeis to earn a master’s in human services in 1981 and eventually her PhD. “I wanted to be in a position where I could influence policy change,” she says. After holding positions in both the private and public sectors, she now works for an agency that focuses on employment-support services.
“I enjoy my current job and I can’t ever envision myself not working at all,” says Dabney. “But at times I’d like to have more time to do [other things], especially helping to mentor young people. I’m a working-class girl who has had some success, for which I am very grateful, and I’d like to help others achieve the same.”
She and other boomers may still get what they want. By the sheer size and clout of their generation, they have developed a reputation for forcing changes on how things have been done. “Baby boomers are so used to having their own way,” says Conny Doty, a 60-year-old Jamaica Plain boomer who directs the city jobs agency where Dabney works. “Everything we touched made way, but not necessarily today’s labor market.”
It’s not inconceivable that the baby boomers will force the American workplace to change, too. After all, roughly 10,000 boomers turn 65 every day — and will continue at that pace for about another decade and a half. “Maybe [employers] don’t want one of the best educated and highly skilled generations ever to just walk out the door,” Doty says. “The labor market and the boomer generation just need to more fully figure out how to accommodate each other.”
Phil Primack is a writer and editor in Medford. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.