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The silver-collar economy

More companies are hiring people 65 and older because they believe they are reliable and productive, while the seniors themselves need – and want – to work. But is the trend squeezing out young people?

(Page 5 of 5)

One perk that appeals to older and younger alike is a flexible work schedule. This can take various forms, from adjusting start times to offering compressed workweeks, telecommuting, or job sharing.

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In Des Moines, Iowa, Diana Heisner is one who appreciates something less than the 9-to-5 grind. She officially retired early in 2010 from her work as an administrative assistant at Principal Financial Group, an insurance and financial services firm.

But soon she was back at work, helping out through a program the firm developed called "Happy Returns." The idea is to encourage company retirees to come back into part-time service at the firm, whose headquarters sprawls across four blocks of downtown Des Moines.

For her part, Ms. Heisner sets aside about six weeks a year to fill in for other administrative assistants on maternity or sick leave. If she works more than that, it could cut into her Social Security income. She calls Happy Returns a win-win for retirees and the firm.

"We know the company. We know the systems. And in my case I still know a lot of the people," she says before settling into a cubicle that offers air-conditioned refuge from a searing Great Plains summer.

Heisner likes to gab with old friends about Iowa State University sports, and to earn extra income that she can use at a mall or the odd yard sale.

Some companies, including L.L. Bean, the big Maine outdoor-goods retailer, find older workers a helpful source of seasonal labor. When the company girds for its holiday season rush of mail orders for everything from backwoods jackets to backpacks for preschoolers, it comes at a time of year when many retirees wouldn't mind stepping in for a stint of work.

Carolyn Beem, a company spokeswoman, says the older workers bring a strong customer-service ethic that often rubs off on the new hires who sit alongside them. Unlike Scripps, which posts openings partly on websites targeting mature workers (such as, L.L. Bean doesn't actively target the older population in its recruiting.

The bottom line is that em-ployers are forming increasingly close bonds with older workers, and those workers make up a growing share of the labor force. Don't expect those changes to slow down anytime soon.

Where financial experts used to talk about seniors being supported by a "three-legged stool" – Social Security, savings, and perhaps an employer pension – work is now an additional leg, says James at Boston College.

And from New England to the Pacific shores, many people are following Rosa Finnegan's path of finding fulfillment in part through staying employed.

One of the oldest employees at Scripps Health, Kenneth Curzon, is about to turn 90 in November. The cheery, slightly stooped Mr. Curzon manages parking operations full time, as he has done since 1990.

"It gives me a lot of satisfaction coming here each day, knowing I'm doing something other than sitting in a corner dreaming about things that happened years ago," says Curzon. "I have a lot of friends here."

Back at Vita Needle, longtime worker Bill Ferson can relate to that thought. As someone who lives on his own just down the road, he credits the job with keeping him alive mentally and moving physically. The results show in his spry wit.

"I'm 39 years old," he tells a visitor. This results in a raised-eyebrow pause, before Mr. Ferson explains that reversing the order of those digits would be the accurate way to put it. Then he's ready to turn back to the swaging machine he operates, putting out a new batch for his needle-factory team.

• Steve Dinnen in Des Moines, Iowa, and Eilene Zimmerman in San Diego contributed to this report.


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