What Retirement? Seniors Are Getting Back To Work

Ella Washington, 83, works as a receptionist three days a week at Holly Hall Apartments, a housing complex for disabled and elderly people in Silver Spring, Md.

Part I  

Part II 



MELISSA BLOCK, HOST: And I'm Melissa Block.

We know that more seniors are working these days, even those who are well past the so-called retirement age. Well, the AARP's Public Policy Institute has been crunching some government numbers, and they found the number of people over age 75 who are either working or looking for work doubled over the last two decades. NPR's Yuki Noguchi went looking for some of the reasons.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: At age 83, Ella Washington decided to go back to work, and she has managed to get her foot in the door.

ELLA WASHINGTON: Good morning. Holly Hall, Ella speaking.

NOGUCHI: Washington, in fact, mans the door as a receptionist in training at a senior living home outside Washington, D.C. She's hoping it'll be a stepping stone to a real job, which she's been looking for since 2005.

WASHINGTON: And people say, why do you want to go out and work? But my question is: Why sit at home? If you're doing nothing, you will get bored. You'll get to a place you can hardly move. I have to keep moving. I cannot stop.

NOGUCHI: It's been hard, Washington says. She says she's gone to job interviews, but suspects employers don't want to hire someone older.

WASHINGTON: Older people can still move. They're going to come to work. They're not going to the club and hang out half the night and come back and say, well, I'm not going in tomorrow. Maybe some old people do go to the club, but I don't.

NOGUCHI: And that is how Washington ended up in an older workers job-training program run by the Jewish Council for the Aging. Quintin Doromal is its director. He says huge numbers of older workers are vying to join his year-long program, which offers part-time work and pays minimum wage.

QUINTIN DOROMAL: We have a waiting list of 193 participants. There are more older Americans that are going back into the workforce or attempting to go back into the workforce for a variety of reasons.

NOGUCHI: Doromal says he eventually hopes to place 20 percent of the trainees like Ella Washington in permanent jobs. Labor force participation among seniors has nearly doubled since 1990, and the unemployment rate in that group has actually increased by a lot. That may sound like a contradiction, but it isn't. It means more seniors are looking for work and some are succeeding, but a larger number are not. Some of them end up asking Kevin Ferguson for help. Ferguson is education director at Adventist Community Services, a food, clothing and job-training volunteer corps near Washington.

KEVIN FERGUSON: Prior to two years ago, almost never did I meet an older person coming in asking for services. They all need something right now to try to develop their skills because each and every one says, I got to go back to work.

NOGUCHI: But the half a dozen job-seeking seniors I interviewed downplayed the financial motivation. Nearly all of them said they wanted to work for the mental and social stimulation. This response doesn't surprise Ferguson.

FERGUSON: Just think about this: for their entire lifetime, they have provided. After 50 years, a half a century of doing for themselves, now they got to walk in and say, hey, I got to have some help. Imagine what that does to your ego.

NOGUCHI: Nirwair Saini recently moved to the U.S. from India to be closer to his children. Money, he admits, is part of the motivation for starting a new career at age 70.

NIRWAIR SAINI: I need money. How can my wife and me - we have to take care of ourselves, you know? We can't depend on the children all the time.

NOGUCHI: After three decades as a mechanical engineer on merchant marine ships, Saini retired. Looking for a new job in the U.S., he says, feels a lot like starting over. Skills and certifications don't transfer.

SAINI: When you go for the job, they need certificates. They need some recommendations.

NOGUCHI: So now, under Ferguson's tutelage, Saini is learning how to maintain and refurbish computers. Using old parts purchased at a secondhand store, he shows me three he's already rebuilt.

SAINI: I dismantle everything and then I - last night, I fixed it up.

NOGUCHI: Training and classes make for a long day. Saini has to catch a bus and often isn't home until 10:30 at night, but that's no problem, he says.

SAINI: For me, I don't consider the age because you can learn something. Always, life is to learn.

NOGUCHI: Old people are like old machines, he says. They may work a little slower, but they're still very useful. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.