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Working Past Retirement Age, Meaningfully


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

A lot of us plan to continue working past retirement age for any number of reasons. For one, we'll need the money. Nearly one in five American workers tapped into their retirement accounts in just this past year, and many now worry they will outlive what savings are left.

There's also greater opportunity. We're living longer in better health. And some choose what author Marc Freedman calls an encore career. If you're going to work into your 60s and 70s, he argues, you should do something meaningful, something with purpose.

Have your retirement plans changed? What do you propose to do with what could easily be 20 good years after retirement age? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, a spokesman with the Army Corps of Engineers, as the Mississippi nears an historic crest in Memphis, how we might want to think about flood control in the future.

But first, we're going to talk about retirement with purpose. Let's begin with a phone call. On the line with us from Hickory, North Carolina, is Claudia(ph). Nice to have you with us.

CLAUDIA (Caller): Hey, Mr. Conan, God bless you. You have a tough job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thank you very much. I suspect you do too.

CLAUDIA: Well, I'm looking at my second job, which is the reason for the call. I have been a registered nurse for 37 years. I hold a baccalaureate degree and two Master's degrees behind that R.N., or in front of it, whichever way it goes.

And I left nursing because I - even - I taught nursing for quite a while, for 12 years, in fact. And my motto with my students was always: You must treat your patients like you want to be treated.

And it seems like now, the more experience and degrees an RN gets, the further away from the patient she gets in the modern health care system. And who knows what's going to happen?

So I have just, as of last night at midnight, when I pushed the send button, completed a Master's in clinical counseling, where I hope to take my hospice work and my love for animals. And I, again, want to do something to improve what's going on in the world, but the money's not really out there for a pet therapy nurse doing end-of-life care and working with returning combat veterans.

You know, it's just things I believe in, and I hope I can make a difference.

CONAN: Hope you can make a difference. As you say, as you got further and further away from actually dealing with patients, you want to make a difference in people's lives. That's the reason a lot of people go into nursing in the first place.

CLAUDIA: Yes, sir. And that's a whole 'nother hour where you and I could talk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CLAUDIA: Believe me. I just feel like the more - well, I think a lot of nurses in the future are going to be like nurse practitioners and things like that and they will need advanced degrees to do that, and that may be a huge answer.

Miss Clinton introduced that way back in the day, when she had certainly a very good opinion on the healthcare system, was using, you know, the more educated nurses. And that's fine. But I think a lot of that, you kind of lose the further out into the rural community you go.

You know, nurse practitioners are actually taking the place of doctors in a lot of places. But to answer your question, I hope to have a new career now. I want to work with veterans and repay them for the huge debt I feel like we as a country owe them. And I hope I am going to be able to do that with my hospice nurse.

I am a Christian counselor as well. And I think I've taken up too much of your time. I appreciate your time.

CONAN: Well, Claudia, thanks very much. We appreciate it. Good luck.

CLAUDIA: If you need a good nurse, I can recommend one.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Claudia with us from Hickory, North Carolina. Mac Freedman joins us now from KQED, our member station in San Francisco. He's got a book out called "The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife," and nice to have you with us.

Mr. MARC FREEDMAN (Author): Thanks, Neal, it's a pleasure.

CONAN: And Claudia, it seems to me, is part of what you're talking about.

Mr. FREEDMAN: Yeah, she's part of this new hybrid between midlife and anything resembling old age or traditional retirement, people moving into an encore phase of life and also an encore career at the intersection of continued income, new meaning, and the desire to use their experience in a way that has a social impact.

CONAN: And this could define you too.

Mr. FREEDMAN: Well, I'm now in the second half of life myself, but I have three young kids, and I feel like I'm becoming an oxymoron. You know, we hear a lot about the young old, the working retired. So many of us are becoming neither-nors, where we're not in our previous stage, and yet we're far off from anything resembling being doddering.

CONAN: Well, what did you do before you decided to pick an encore?

Mr. FREEDMAN: Well, I actually spent the early part of my career working on kids issues and particularly trying to find new strategies to help low-income young people navigate their way to a better life.

And I got interested in mentoring and was involved in research that showed that mentoring programs for young people have a big impact. But it raised the question of where are we going to find the human beings to do those things that only people can do, which is one of the reasons I started Civic Ventures, in an effort to tap this undiscovered continent of talent in people in their 60s, 70s and beyond.

CONAN: And a supercontinent as the baby boomers retire. So Civic Ventures is a think-tank that's focused on boomers' work and social purpose.

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and let's go to Carolyn(ph), Carolyn with us from Tucson.

CAROLYN (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Hi, Carolyn.

CAROLYN: Yes. I am a - just turned 62. I'm a semi-retired CPA. And I've recently become pretty much a full-time professional racecar driver.

CONAN: My goodness. How did you decide to do that?

CAROLYN: Well, I've been involved in road racing for all of my adult life, and last year I had an opportunity to buy a couple of World Challenge Jettas. And so I said: I'm not getting any younger. I'm going to do it.

CONAN: And are you - how are you doing?

CAROLYN: I'm doing fairly well. I have a teammate who is making podium finishes, which is a very good thing. And I'm getting better as a driver and having a lot of fun doing it.

CONAN: And I expect you keep the books for the outfit too?

CAROLYN: Yes, I certainly do.

CONAN: Combining both careers, Carolyn, thanks very much for the call.

CAROLYN: Thank you.

CONAN: And racecar driving may not have been one of the fields, Marc Freedman, that you were emphasizing a great deal. But nevertheless, there's social purpose to that too.

Mr. FREEDMAN: Absolutely, and one of the social purposes is just attacking conventional wisdom about what this period in life is supposed to be about. You know, you're supposed to be descending the hill at this point. Well, a lot of people are actually prepared to do some of their most exciting and important work, the work that they'll be remembered for.

CONAN: Joining us now from our bureau in New York is Steven Greenhouse, labor and workplace correspondent for The New York Times, and nice to have you back with us on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. STEVEN GREENHOUSE (The New York Times): Nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And has there been a significant shift over the past few years in people planning to retire later or to adopt what Marc Freedman describes as encore careers?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Yes, Neal, there has been a significant shift, you know, partly because the stock market fell so much a few years ago. A lot of people saw their 401(k)s - you know, you've heard it, become 101(k)s, you know, go down the toilet, and they were very worried that they did no longer have enough money to retire on.

So many people in their 60s, who thought they might retire at 65 or 67, said: Whoops, I might have to work till 70, 72, 75.

I think when Marc says encore careers - careers with real social value, you know, after one's regular retirement, are a great idea. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people near retirement age who are just fairly - I hate to say it, fairly desperate economically.

And they want - they see that they need to work, and they'll take any job they can that's out there. Ideally, it would be a socially remunerative, you know, an encore job where they were, you know, teaching kids, doing child care, working as nurses, working in hospice.

But a lot of them are taking jobs in Wal-Marts or McDonald's. They just need money, you know, to get buy. I did a recent story...

CONAN: Well, supporting themselves and their families is - well, that's idealistic too.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Yeah, that's true. I did a recent story where one number really jumped out at me, Neal, that, you know, half of people who are retired - half of people half of the nation's retirees receive at least 90 percent of their income from Social Security.

And you know, the typical Social Security benefits are just $14,000 a year. People have no idea that that's the typical amount received by Social Security recipients.

And of course, all these people in Washington are now talking about the importance of, what, cutting back Social Security, right? So I think a lot of people are feeling more and more pressure to work later because they realize they're not going to be getting enough from Social Security, their house - the value of their houses are declining, their 401(k)s have, you know, dropped over the years. So you know, as Marc said, a lot of people are feeling forced, compelled, squeezed to work later.

CONAN: And Marc Freedman, when you talk about retiring with a purpose, I'm sure you're including everybody, not just people who can afford to retire to something that amounts to volunteer work.

Mr. FREEDMAN: Right, absolutely. You know, and as the earlier caller, who shifted from nursing into her encore career, suggests, this is not an easy transition for people.

There was actually an article in Time magazine a couple months ago about the doubling of people who moved from earlier careers to divinity school. It was called "Holy Enrollers," which I thought was definitely the title of the year.

But it told the story of a woman who'd been a nurse and became an Episcopal priest. It cost her $100,000. She had to sell her house and her car. So here's somebody who's moving proactively into this stage.

And for so many people it's a do-it-yourself transition, and it's a costly one. It's one that takes a certain amount of time, and that's all the more difficult if you've been forced into this big shift in your life.

So I agree with Steven Greenhouse. We really need to think about this period as a time not just to compel people to work longer but to invest in them so that they can move into work that is going to balance the books at home and also feed their desire for meaning in this stage of life.

CONAN: Here's an email from Linda in Albany, California: My mother and father are both in their early 70s, retired from their real jobs more than 10 years ago. My mother took money she earned from stocks from her former company and founded a small bookstore with two friends, the first bookstore our small Nebraska town ever had.

It was a community center with a cafe, lectures, author signings and special events, as well as books for all. They closed it just yesterday after deciding they needed more time to enjoy retirement.

My dad founded a community center that gathers all the social services under one roof with a computer for the community - employment office, Head Start program and English and Spanish GED courses, immigration lawyer, rooms for the supervised visitation of children of divorce, housing office, battered women's center, et cetera, et cetera. He raised the money through grants to purchase the property and rallied everyone around the project, which he still supervises. I doubt my parents will ever retire. Thank goodness.

Linda, thank you very much for that email. We're talking about new ways to think about retirement. Have your plans changed? What do you propose to do with what could be 20 good years after retirement age? 800-989-8255. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

The percentage of workers who say they are not at all confident about having enough money for comfortable retirement is at an all-time high. The survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute shows a five percent jump, over last year, to 27 percent of workers.

For a growing number of us, retirement will not mean the end of work. Have your retirement plans changed? What do you propose to do with what could be 20 good years after retirement age? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email, And you can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Marc Freedman - excuse me. Marc Freedman, who is the founder of Civic Ventures, a think-tank focused on boomers' work and social purpose; and Steven Greenhouse, labor and workplace correspondent for the New York Times, someone we often turn to on these issues.

And Steven Greenhouse, I wanted to ask: You've mentioned - we've seen a trend of people in their 60s and 70s competing for jobs against, well, what used to be thought for entry-level jobs, at places like McDonald's.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Yes, Neal. I went down to Fort Lauderdale a few months ago to do a story about older people who maybe should have retired already, you know, if they had enough saved up, but they're staying in the workforce somewhat reluctantly, and they are often applying for the same jobs as their grandchildren, as 20-year-olds.

And one economist I interviewed said that 70 has become the new 20, that the 70-year-olds are applying to be supermarket cashiers or to be receptionists in doctors' offices.

And in places like Florida, we're really seeing a huge, you know, clash between, you know, these generations. You know, a lot of 20-year-olds without college education are - you know, who aren't going to become engineers are competing with maybe retired engineers who are looking for a little extra money to get by.

And, you know, they're taking - you know, they're being forced to take these, you know, whatever jobs are available, which are often, you know, supermarket jobs, restaurant jobs.

CONAN: And what we used to think of as summer jobs.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Yes, yes, yes. And then it's really - the pressures have really increased, Neal, since the recession began, you know, three, four years ago. Now, you know, nearly 6.7 million Americans age 65 and over are holding jobs, and that's up about 20 percent from when the recession began a few years ago.

And, you know, another statistic that surprises me is that 18 percent of people age 65 or above are either, you know, holding jobs or looking for jobs. So nearly one in five people over age 65, you know, is still in the labor force. And that's way up over the past decade.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Let's go to Judy(ph), Judy with us from New Orleans.

JUDY (Caller): Hello, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JUDY: First of all, I wanted to just give you some information, if anybody's interested in really exploring the idea of aging and what is impacting.

There's a great book by Ted Fishman, who wrote "China, Inc.," called "Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World's Population and How it Pits Young Against Old, Child Against Parent, Worker Against Boss, Company Against Rival, and Nation Against Nation."

And not only just the book, but I am also a participant in this aging demographic. I had a farm near New Orleans for 17, 18 years. I was depending on that as a retirement, both the property and just the income. Katrina destroyed that.

And then I embarked on another career in retail, in the consignment industry, the green business, recycling, and then in August of '08, and you know what happened in 2008, in September, and I wasn't able to get any kind of small business help or assistance in banking or anything.

And I tried to deal with that for two years, had to start dipping into my IRA. And finally, before I lost all of it, I went back to school. And now I'm trying to seek a job in the private services industry, which is house management, personal assistant work and that kind of thing.

And - but I also wanted to mention, in the demographics of the aging population is, it affects women far more than men in that the generations that are now aging in the 60s and 70s where most women were homemakers, and they worked - they were in and out of the job market and the labor force, and they didn't get the pension or the Social Security or the sustained pension opportunities that men who held full-time jobs, long-term jobs, had.

And as we know that men generally die before women do, and so we have a whole generation of women that were homemakers, and I think the whole social network has to be re-evaluated and reinvented in order to find, you know, ways to participate in this new society.

And the gentleman that just spoke about Florida, in the book, it notes that Sarasota in Florida has more not-for-profit service organizations per capita than any American city its size, and every year, a new spate of well-heeled, well-to-do residents move there, newly disconnected from their business and social life, and they have to reinvent themselves.

So Florida, I think, is probably at the forefront in trying to absorb and give productive lives to people that keep coming down there. So -and this is not just a United States problem. This is a global aging...

CONAN: We hear you on that, Judy, but we wanted to focus on the United States just for the purposes of this program. But Marc Freedman, people - as she describes that - moving to a place where they're disconnected and looking to, well, maybe give back to community, how do they do that without help?

Mr. FREEDMAN: Well, that's the problem is there's so little help out there that it is a do-it-yourself process. People are having to navigate through unfamiliar territory, from what's last to what's next.

And it can often seem, as Steven Greenhouse pointed out, as Judy pointed out with the subtitle of the "Shock of Gray" book that it's a zero-sum game, that every person in this current economy who finds their way is going to be displacing somebody in another age group.

And I'm glad Judy raised the point about the women's movement, because it is a parallel, in many ways, to the new roles women forged in the '60s and '70s. At that point, too, it seemed like a zero-sum game. Every woman who found their way into a professional role was going to displace a man, and we'd end up in the same place, ultimately, with a lot of pain and suffering along the way.

Now when we look back, we realize we couldn't compete globally without this segment of the population contributing. And I think that that's where we're headed over the long term, even though in the current situation it can seem like it's something that is a net loss.

But I think what we're talking about really is a society that uses the abundance of its talents, and that's going to change the entire shape of lives.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in, and let's go next to -this is Tom(ph), Tom with us from Lake County in California.

TOM (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Tom.

TOM: Well, thank you for having me on the show. It's - I was thinking of a retired admiral who went to work for Wal-Mart as a greeter because he wanted something to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOM: Forty-seven years ago, I retired from the postal service on a disability and started receiving my disability a year later, as well as a VA disability. Now, money-wise, that would have been great 15 years ago, but it doesn't do well in this economy. And I'm certainly not able to work.

So I volunteer my time. I help coordinate court services for the North Base Stand Down, north of the San Francisco Bay, and I'm involved in that all year long, and I work as I can. But there are a lot of veterans like me who are living on disability that can't work or can't find work. And it's a rough economy.

CONAN: Well, that - and Tom, nobody's disputing that it's a tough economy, and we need to find novel approaches. And Marc Freedman, I want to ask you about another one of your projects, the Purpose Prize, granting about - up to $100,000 to people over 60 in, as you describe it, encore careers who come up with novel ways to solve social problems.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Well, Neal, you know, we think that creativity and entrepreneurship, innovation, are the exclusive province of young people. But it turns out that there's a growing group of people who are in their 50s, 60s, beyond, who are applying their midlife experience to solve major problems in society.

One example is a guy out here in San Francisco, Gary Maxworthy(ph), who wanted to go in the Peace Corps when he was young, couldn't afford to do it, spent 35 years in the food distribution business. His wife passed away in his late 50s, re-evaluated his priorities and went to work in the Vista Program, the food bank in San Francisco, where he discovered that food banks were just giving out canned food and that he knew growers throughout the state were wasting an enormous amount of produce that was seen as blemished.

He created the Farm to Family Program, which last year distributed 100 million pounds of fresh food to food banks throughout the state of California. I think it encapsulates the way that many people are bringing their experience and problem-solving capacities together to fuel innovation.

CONAN: Marc Freedman mentioned entrepreneurship. Steven Greenhouse, one of the trends you've reported on, too, is older people starting new businesses.

Mr. FREEDMAN: Yes, a lot of older people are starting new businesses. A lot of people retire from jobs where they, you know, knew accounting, they knew how to run a business, they knew marketing, and they thought: Well, why don't I start my own business?

And a lot of people, as you've discussed many times on your show, a lot of unemployed have been out of work for 20, 30, 40 weeks, and they say: You know, shucks, no one's going to hire me. I might as well go out and try to start a business on my own.

And I've written about, you know, people who go into computer consulting business who, like the one caller's parents, Linda's parents, you know, who started a book shop, who started, you know, a community center.

You know, a lot of retirees have an amazing amount of skills. And, you know, some want to find regular jobs. Some want to set up their own businesses. They want to be their own bosses, perhaps, for the first time in their life.

And I was impressed by what Tom said. You know, sometimes it's very hard to find a job nowadays, and it's good to volunteer. It's often more fulfilling to go out and volunteer and do good work in the community than to just sit around watching TV.

CONAN: Let's go next to Bob, and Bob is on the line with us from Cleveland.

BOB (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Bob. You're on the air.

BOB: Hi. You know, I retired a couple of years ago from that encore job, you know, where you help people and help yourself and help the world and so forth. And now it's really strange for me because although we took our retirement funds and put them into buying and rehabbing houses, we kind of lost that personal responsibility sort of feeling, you know, where every day, somebody's well-being depended upon us, my wife and I. My wife is a nurse. I'm a perfusionist. And now I really feel lost.

CONAN: You feel lost.

BOB: Yes. I really do, like, oh, I don't know. You know, just before I retired, I mean I was training the next wave of perfusionists. I was dealing with patients every day. You know, very much people had their lives in my hands. Now...

CONAN: You sound, Bob - I wanted to bring Marc Freedman in here. He sounds like one of these people who's, in fact, looking for purpose.

Mr. FREEDMAN: Yeah, we hear a lot about the purpose-driven life, but I feel that so many people at Bob's juncture are looking for the purpose-driven job partly to make ends meet, but just as much to have that sense of passing on their experience. And I think it's developmental. You know, when you reach the period in life where there are fewer years ahead than are behind, it changes your priorities. You think about whether you're living your legacy.

Erik Erikson, the great psychologist of adulthood, said that the hallmark of successful development of well-being in this stage could be encapsulated in the phrase I am what survives of me. And I think for so many decades, we've sent people at this point in life ought to have a second childhood in age-segregated playgrounds when so many people want exactly what Bob was describing.

CONAN: Bob, any ideas on what you might want to do?

BOB: Well, what we're doing with our houses is renting them to folks who may not otherwise be able to afford them. I'm speaking of the low-price range and working with the government agencies and so forth so that maybe we can help out folks that way a little bit. And I'm starting to do some writing, which I've always wanted to do. I think I'll keep it in the technical area so maybe I can pass along some of what I learned.

CONAN: Sounds like you're getting some things done. It sounds like you're pretty busy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOB: Yeah. Yeah, I guess. The returns aren't what they should be. I'm kind of self-unemployed right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOB: But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: There's a lot of people in that category, Bob. You don't have to be over 65 for that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Good luck to you. Thanks very much for the call.

BOB: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: We're talking about what to do for an encore career. Our guests, Marc Freedman, who is the founder of Civic Ventures, a think tank focused on boomers' work and social purpose, and Steven Greenhouse, the labor and workplace correspondent for The New York Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email from RJ(ph) in Flagstaff: As a 26-year-old, I think it's kind of sad that what I was always sold as the idea that you'd be taken care of in old age seems to be rapidly evaporating. My wife and I plan to buy a house and pay it off in 15 years. Then anything we make will be solely for our own enjoyment. We refuse to work until we drop.

And, Steven Greenhouse, I think a lot of people might sympathize with RJ, including those who, well, there's an awful lot of professions, you think of coal mining, where you really can't continue after 65.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Yes. You know, RJ, I wish you well. It would be great if you and your wife, you know, have good steady jobs for the next 15, 20 years and you could buy a nice house and pay off your mortgage in 15 years, and then save up for retirement and then retire at age 55 or 60. Unfortunately, a lot of people, you know, are not so lucky. They think they're going to have a nice steady career and they get laid off in midstream.

You know, I wrote the story the other day where I quote, you know, McKinsey, the great consulting firm. And they say that the typical American family faces a 37 percent shortfall in their income for retirement, a shortfall, McKinsey estimates, of about $250,000 a year.

And one thing I think many of us have been seeing is that my generation, the baby boom generation, we're going to have a tougher life in retirement than my parents' generation. My parents had good steady pensions. Those are being replaced by 401(k)s, which are not as good. And my children's generation, you know, people in the 20s and 30s, are going to have it harder than my generation because very few of them have pensions. You know, wages have really been stuck for a lot of people. The unemployment rate for young people is very, very high, and that might make it harder for them to get good jobs eventually.

So, you know, I do wish you well, you know, get a good career, get a good job. You know, hopefully you can stay in a good job for 20, 30 years, pay off your mortgage and have a good retirement. But unfortunately, that's not often the case for millions and millions of Americans.

CONAN: Let's give Jan(ph) the last word, Jan with us from Kansas City.

JAN (Caller): Hi. I really appreciate this topic that you have today. I thought I was the only one. I love your word hybrid. I've been searching for a word to try to describe the situation that I'm in. I'm 68 and I don't have the least interest in retiring. I consider this to be the best time of my life. When I was a special ed school teacher, I happen to just find myself with a home-based business and realized that I was making more money with that than I was teaching school.

So at 64, I quit teaching rather than wait until I retired. And now I have a full-time business, my home-based business. It's in the health care industry. So I decided to start living a healthier lifestyle and became a triathlete at 64. And now I've done several triathletes - I come in last, but I don't have any competition.

CONAN: There's no last in a triathlon.

JAN: I go home with the first place ribbon because in both of the age groups that I've been in I haven't had any competition. But I'm just having a wonderful time. And I think part of my enthusiasm is starting a new business at 59.

I'm in a growth phase of my life. Rather than anything winding down, everything is growing. And I'm so enjoying mentoring the new people that come in to business with me. It's just very exciting and just full of joy and happiness. I just can't think of a better place to be.

CONAN: Well, Jan, congratulations and good luck with your business. You, at least, picked a growth sector of the economy. We appreciate the phone call. Marc Freedman, thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. FREEDMAN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Steven Greenhouse, we'll talk with you soon.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Nice to be here.

CONAN: Coming up, the Mississippi is said to crest at historic levels. We'll talk with the Army Corps of Engineers spokesman in Memphis. Stay with us. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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