More older Americans are opting to stay on the job

When he turned 65 last Christmas Day, Kenneth Porter could have retired from his job as a construction inspector at the Boston Edison Company. But partly for economic reasons, and mostly "because I love the job," he stayed on. He plans to continue working "as long as I am able. I hope I can stay until I'm 70 ."

He was able to continue working because the utility was complying with a federal law, passed last year, that prohibits a firm from requiring a person to retire before age 70.

For many older Americans, the law came just in time. While Mr. Porter's reasons for working past the "normal" retirement age have more to do with the work than the money, for many others the choice is purely economic: Inflation has eroded the purchasing power of their anticipated pension funds and social-security benefits to the point that they must keep working, not only to maintain their standards of living, but to survive on their own, without accepting help from friends, relatives, or charity.

A survey last year by Louis Harris & Associates Inc. for Johnson & Higgins, a pension consulting firm, found that 51 percent of US workers said they would like to continue with some kind of employment after reaching retirement age. And 53 percent of present retirees said they would prefer to be working on a full- or part-time basis.

While not that many people will actually continue in the work force, the percentage of those staying on the job is expected to grow.

he Work in America Institute, a Scarsdale, N.Y., organization that examines US work habits, estimates that about 20 percent of men over 65 are continuing on the job in 1980. By 1985 this will have grown to between 20.1 and 22.6 percent and by 1990 to between 22.6 and 25.1 percent.

While the figures for women are smaller, they are also expected to grow: The institute estimates that the number of working women over 65 will climb from 8.1 percent in 1980 to between 10.6 and 13.1 percent at the end of the decade.

Besides inflation, Work in America finds a number of other reasons people are continuing to work. Among these are more educated workers who are less willing to retire, changing personnel policies that require adequate proof of incompetence before a person can be forced to retire, and the improved health of the population at large that permits a greater number of people to keep working.

Staying with a full-time job is one way many people have chosen to maintain living standards in their "golden years." Others, already retired, have decided to return to work in usually part-time jobs that allow them to earn some extra income, as long as it is less than $6,000 a year. If they earn more than this, they lose part of their social-security benefits.

There is another way social security makes it difficult for many unretired workers. For Mr. Porter of Boston Edison, the fact that he is earning more and continuing to contribute to social security does not mean he will receive larger benefits when -- and if -- he finally does retire. "I just found out the level of my social-security benefits was locked in when I turned 65. I can't get any more no matter how long I work."

Despite the conflict of a law that says people should not be forced to retire and social- security regulations that encourage retirement, many older Americans are continuing to work and finding numerous agencies to help them.

One of these is Mature Temps, a nationwide employment agency that places older people in temporary jobs. While Mature Temps is a nationwide firm, there are many smaller agencies in hundreds of communities throughout the US.

Jobs For Elders Inc. in Beverly, Mass., is one of these. The agency acts as a job-placement service for older people looking for full- or part-time employment, says Bernice Waldman, who founded Jobs For Elders three years ago and is continuing under her third source of funding, a state demonstration grant that runs out at the end of next June. She just recently received this particular grant, in fact, after worrying through October about what she would do when the previous grant ran out at the end of that month.

In finding jobs for older workers, Mrs. Waldman has learned she has to overcome many stereotypes carried by both employers and the job-seekers themselves.

"I often have to show the older worker how to overcome their own stereotypes, " she says. Many of them have accepted the belief that an older worker cannot be trained in a new job, that they cannot compete with younger workers, that employers will not want to hire them because they won't be staying as long as a younger person.

She answers this last misconception, she says, pointing out that older workers usually stay on the job longer than a person fresh out of high school or college.

For the returning workers themselves Mr. Waldman conducts a number of workshops during the year. Here, the facts of the changing workplace are presented. Many of these ideas, Mrs. Waldman says, are "totally foreign" to the older workers. One is that a job can be enjoyable, even fun.

"These people have always believed that of you're having fun, it wasn't a job ," she says. "Fun was something that came after work, or on weekends. Having fun on the job comes as a shock to many people. 'You mean they're going to pay me for doing something I enjoy?' they'll ask."

The older workers also have to be instructed in the difference between the "boss" they worked for before and the "supervisor" they will be working for today. The difference is more than just semantics. Mrs. Waldman notes. The supervisor today is more accountable to the workers than the boss of the past, she says.

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