Every weekday morning at 8:30, Margaret Normile arrives at the visitor center of Asheville's 10-acre Botanical Gardens and begins her daily routine. She waters plants in the solarium. She transplants seedlings in the greenhouse. She also weeds gardens, mows grass, and trims trails, all part of her half-day job as assistant to the manager.
It is a role Ms. Normile never anticipated five years ago when she retired after 25 years as a high school social-studies teacher in Binghamton, N.Y. "I imagined myself doing volunteer work," she says. "I didn't imagine myself doing a real job."
After moving to Asheville two years ago, Normile began volunteering at the gardens. That led to this 20-hour-a-week job, which supplements her pension and provides a satisfying balance between structured activity and leisure.
"I've never ever done anything like this before," Normile says with enthusiasm. "It's fun to have a whole new interest."
That interest puts her at the forefront of what some experts say will become more common - post-retirement work. As life spans lengthen and living costs increase, they say, more older people will want and need jobs.
Already some retirement publications rate communities on opportunities for part-time work.
Some retirees work as "mobile entrepreneurs," running companies and consulting from home. Others work in retailing, catalog sales, and real estate. Schedules range from part time or seasonal to shared jobs and flexible hours.
Income tells only part of the story. "A lot of retirees miss the social activity of work," says Mark Fagan, a professor at Jacksonville (Ala.) State University. "When they retire, they're really looking for a long vacation. But a vacation that never ends is not a vacation. They want to have something to do, a place to go."
Up to one-third of those moving to Sun City retirement communities are now employed, says Ken Plonski of Del Webb Corp. in Phoenix, which builds the developments. That has nearly doubled in recent years.
"A lot of people have their own Mom and Pop businesses," Mr. Plonski says. "They also have consulting relationships. They found they can do those as easily in California as they did when they lived in New York because of technological advances - computers, faxes, e-mail."
Jerry Joseph, a Sun City resident in Palm Desert, Calif., retired from publishing and now works from home as an executive recruiter. His wife of 52 years, Floria, handles the administrative work.
"Working is fun for us," says Mr. Joseph. "I can get out and play 18 holes of golf early in the morning and be back at my desk at 11:30." He hopes to give a class at a local college to "inspire senior citizens and teach them how they can make use of their past work experience, at a different level."
These changes are even affecting residential design. A typical Sun City house has increased from 1,100 square feet in 1960 to nearly 1,800 square feet today, Plonski says, in part because of home offices. New homes are also wired for computers.
Testing the options
Still, not everyone expects a stampede back to the office. Among the 130 people attending a Creative Retirement Exploration Weekend at the University of North Carolina in Asheville this year, 61 percent said they would like to work after retirement, up from 49 percent in 1996. Yet turnout was low for two workshops on part-time work, causing Tom Fitzpatrick, who led the seminars, to speculate that some of these people are not really eager to work.
"They're just interested in what options they would have after retirement," he says. "They reason, 'Maybe if I think about working, then retirement doesn't scare me so much.'"
According to Robert Friedland, director of the National Academy on Aging in Washington, national data suggest that in the past few years, the number of men 65 and over in the labor force has increased. That, he says, could mark a reversal of the past 20 years, when retirement ages have averaged 62.
Even so, Mr. Friedland cautions, "As a proportion, there are very few people in the labor force after 65. Even if we have a new trend emerging, it would be a long time before such a trend would result in a large proportion of the elderly in the labor market."
Currently 79 percent of workers begin collecting Social Security benefits at age 62.
"Wanting to work longer, and even being willing to be paid less for it and move into service jobs, may allow some people to get jobs," says Friedland. "But businesses have incentives to encourage older workers to leave. And they need people with different skills to operate the computer program that operates everything else."
Yet a new report by the Hudson Institute, "Workforce 2020," foresees labor shortages that will delay retirement for some. Already this year, older Americans ages 55 to 64 are getting new jobs at an annual rate of 4.1 percent - more than double the 1.8 percent for the overall population. Among women ages 55 to 64, 51 percent work, up from 43 percent 10 years ago.
Still, age discrimination remains a persistent problem. Helen Dennis, who teaches retirement planning at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, finds that employers need to include age-related issues in management programs.
"It's much easier to discuss racism, sexism, homophobic tendencies, and discrimination against people with disabilities - those are very big issues," Ms. Dennis says. "For whatever reason, the issue of age tends to get a back seat in this 'ism' business."
Employees also need to change attitudes. Robert Menchin, author of "New Work Opportunities for Older Americans," says, "Discrimination is real in the sense that age bias does exist despite laws against it. But it's also unreal, in the sense that a lot of older people just don't try to get a job. Age bias is in their own mind. They buy into the myth that employers don't need them or their skills."
Older workers, good results
When businesses do hire older workers, the results can be beneficial for everyone. "Employers are beginning to realize that older people as workers are a gray-haired treasure," says Mr. Menchin. "They're dependable, they have a work ethic, and they're willing to accept flexible schedules. Employers are also starting to appreciate the value of seasoned judgment and a lifetime of experience."
Yet making employment easier for older workers will require changes in the workplace. In a University of Michigan survey, almost three-quarters of those between the ages of 51 and 61 said they would prefer to phase down from full-time to part-time work rather than end abruptly.
Other progress will depend on reforming federal policies. Some financial advisers suggest eliminating the Social Security earnings test, which limits the amount of money older Americans can earn. The Hudson Institute also recommends raising benefits by 8 percent for each year beyond age 65 that workers do not begin collecting Social Security.
Summing up the attitude of many retirees, Normile says, "So often, when people have had stressful jobs, they think they're going to get away from it all in retirement and go sit on some beach. For me, and for the people around here, that doesn't cut it. We want to be still active. We want to be social, learning, working, and part of a community."