Helping Seniors Who Want to Work After Retirement

ON a quiet Tuesday evening, the security guard at the gatehouse of a large condominium is in the mood to chat as he fills out a visitor's guest pass. He explains that although he's retired, he works here part time. The extra money helps (''We have 19 grandchildren, and my wife buys Christmas presents for all of them''), and he enjoys the activity.

Earlier on the same day last week, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would make it easier for retirees like this man to earn extra income without losing Social Security benefits. It would gradually raise the earnings limit for those between 65 and 69 from the current level - $11,280 a year - to $30,000 by 2002. After that, the amount would be indexed to inflation. Supporters say the measure would help a million beneficiaries.

That's the good news. But behind it lurk two troubling questions: Will enough jobs exist to enable growing numbers of Social Security recipients to take advantage of these benefits? And will employers put aside discriminatory attitudes and hire them? It's easy to find retired people in low-wage jobs, such as bagging groceries at the supermarket or taking orders at fast-food restaurants. It's less common to find them in better-paying office positions.

Even among full-time employees still a decade or more away from retirement, employment has become a tenuous proposition. As part of downsizing, managers continue to push longtime workers out of the corporate nest, dramatically reducing the ranks of those in their 50s and 60s.

Age discrimination can be extremely difficult to prove. But some ex-employees remain so convinced of such bias that they have sued their employers. In one of the latest cases, Florida Power Corporation, which has trimmed more than 1,000 positions in the past two years, faces four age-discrimination lawsuits. One involving 17 plaintiffs could balloon into a class-action suit. The company denies the charges.

Elsewhere this month, a federal jury found the New York City Department for the Aging guilty of age discrimination for dismissing a woman in her 60s and replacing her with a younger worker. It awarded the woman $1 million. What an irony - an agency for the aging, sued for age discrimination!

Laws have made mandatory retirement illegal for most workers. But corporate practices can circumvent those laws. The unwritten rule posted invisibly on the door of some personnel offices could read: No older workers need apply.

Yet as baby boomers and others hear about proposed cuts in Social Security and Medicare and anticipate modest or uncertain pensions, their realistic, if somewhat gloomy, assessment increasingly is: ''I won't be able to afford to retire.''

Retirement as Americans have come to know it - a time to turn off the alarm clock, collect Social Security, and enjoy years of leisure, perhaps in the Sun Belt - appears poised for dramatic shifts. The need for extra money and the desire to be productive and useful cannot be programmed to end at age 65.

Somehow the work force must be restructured to accommodate these new realities. Instead of the usual all-or-nothing approach - full-time jobs requiring 40 or 50 hours a week - managers could create more part-time positions. Although reduced schedules are usually viewed as a way to meet the needs of parents with young children, they would equally serve middle-aged workers caring for older relatives, and those over 65 who are eager to work, though not a full week.

These needed changes serve as only the latest reminder that all play and no work can be as unsatisfying as all work and no play. Finding a balance will not be easy. But one thing is sure: As workplace compromises occur, they will benefit all generations - not only retirees like the security guard, eager for extra money and a flexible schedule, but his four adult children, trying to accommodate the needs of work and home, and ultimately his 19 grandchildren as well.

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