At 66, Toby Sandler is still working, with no plans to stop.
The Needham resident, who has a part-time job helping people manage the moving process, and her husband, a retired electrical engineer, have a substantial nest egg. But the couple have more than $20,000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses a year, and Sandler worries their savings won’t last, especially considering the longevity, and the Alzheimer’s, that runs in her family.
Each time the couple consider a big expense, they have a running joke with their financial adviser: “How long can we afford to live if we do this?”
But like many other people, Sandler also likes working.
“It gives me a purpose,” she said. “I’m not ready to be a fully retired person.”
As people live longer and remain healthier, many of them are staying in the workforce far beyond traditional retirement age. Nearly 20 percent of Americans 65 and older are either working or looking for work — the highest rate since 1962, according to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And as the baby boom generation ages, the share of these older workers in the labor force is expected to increase faster than for any other age group.
Having more experienced workers in the labor force is good for the country, economists say, especially as the population ages and those not healthy enough to work make even greater demands on society. Despite a common misperception, the historically low rate of younger men in the workforce is not caused by “older workers hogging all the jobs,” said Wellesley College economist Courtney Coile, because the number of jobs is not fixed.
While some older workers remain employed because they enjoy working, many do it because they must, as traditional pension plans vanish and personal savings come up short. The median amount of savings among households near retirement age is just $14,500, according to the National Institute on Retirement Security.
The number of private sector employees who participated in traditional pension plans, which have financial incentives to retire by a certain age, fell from 38 percent in 1979 to 13 percent in 2014, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.
Changes in Social Security benefits are also driving people to work longer. The age at which a person can collect full Social Security payments has risen from 65 to 66 and is soon to be 67, and the financial incentive for waiting to collect has increased.
Since 2000, workers above this age threshold have been allowed to earn as much as they want and still collect full Social Security benefits, which encourages more people to work, Coile said.
In addition, fewer companies offer health insurance benefits to retirees, which makes people less likely to retire before they qualify for Medicare at 65. Even some workers who are old enough to get Medicare continue working because they prefer the known of their employer’s health insurance to the unknown of Medicare or Republicans’ efforts to overhaul the Affordable Care Act.
Despite the fact the president has pledged not to touch Medicare, “They’re afraid of Trump,” said career coach Chuck Campbell, of Holliston-based Argyle Consultants.
Even if earning a steady paycheck isn’t a financial necessity, for many the daily work is hard to give up.
“We live in a work-identified culture,” said Jacquelyn James, codirector of the Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. “Most people in their 60s have found their way to a job that they like, and they want to keep doing it.”
William Nadler, 75, works full time, teaching computer skills at Operation A.B.L.E., a Boston employment and training nonprofit for older job-seekers that has seen an uptick in people over 65 looking for work. Nadler, who started his career as a mechanical engineer, never saved for retirement but says he would still be working even if he didn’t have to — partly because he has an eye for the finer things.
“I would like one more new car before I go,” he said. “I had a Corvette in my younger years. I wouldn’t mind having another one.”
People are more educated than they used to be, which increases the likelihood that they have a less physically demanding job that allows them to keep working. And as couples have kids later in life, some parents are staying employed into their late 60s and beyond to help their grown children with student loans and down payments.
Mark Cohen, a 66-year-old human resources director at Stavis Seafoods in Boston, has “no plans to not work.” He likes contributing to society and needs the income to help his grown children pay off their student loans. Cohen also prefers relying on his employer for health insurance.
“I feel like I’m in a pretty advantageous position to not have to react to every news story about what the government may or may not do with health care,” he said.
But for older people trying to find work, the job search can be a challenge, as they are more likely to have worked at one firm for decades and have outdated skills, said Susan Drevitch Kelly, a career coach who works with senior job-seekers. Age discrimination is also a significant factor, Kelly said, noting that numerous hiring managers have told her, “I know I’m not supposed to say this, but I’d really like someone 35 to 45.”
Fred, 70, knows about age bias all too well. Fred lost his job as a controller at a major Cambridge technology company in 2012 after it was sold and he has been trying to land a permanent corporate accounting job ever since. He’s getting by on contract work, a few months here, a few months there, but has burned through his 401(k) savings over the past five years, despite the fact his wife works full time as a day-care director.
Fred, who asked not to be identified to avoid hurting his job search, is certain he is being passed over for permanent positions because of his age. The discrimination is subtle but systemic, he said, from hiring managers who tell him he’s overqualified to job descriptions that never seek more than 10 years of experience — he has 40 — to recruiters who ask when he graduated from college, information he purposely keeps off his résumé.
“I shouldn’t have to hide this,” he said. “Nobody should have to hide it.”
Under the right conditions, work can have positive physical and cognitive benefits, and some studies have linked it to a reduced risk of dementia. But if people feel forced to continue working and are anxious about having enough money to live on — which is likelier for women, who live longer and make less money than men — the benefits are diminished, said Ernest Gonzales, a professor of social work at Boston University.
“I certainly don’t want to convey the message that we have to be productive forever,” he said.
Nestor Laveau retired at 63 but didn’t have any savings, and soon realized his roughly $1,000 a month Social Security check wasn’t going to cut it. Laveau, who spent 25 years as a dialysis machine technician, is now back at work full time, making $11 an hour arranging rides on the MBTA’s transit service for people with disabilities. The job can be stressful, he said, as can the drive between his home in Roxbury and the call center in Medford.
“I sure wish I could have stayed retired,” said Laveau, who is about to turn 68. “Maybe I hit Powerball tomorrow and I can retire and go to Hawaii.”Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.