DON’T GET HER WRONG. Denise Dabney loves her job as lead planner in the Mayor’s Office of Jobs & Community Services for the City of Boston. It’s just that the Dorchester resident, who moved from Virginia to Boston with her parents in 1960, wishes she had more time for volunteer work and to pursue other interests, such as her passion for genealogy. But as is the case for many baby boomers, financial and other realities often trump wishful intent.
Dabney, for example, helps support her 90-year-old mother. In addition, she calculates that she’ll be paying college tuition for her youngest child, now 15, until 2019. “I wish I had the financial freedom to do some other things, but that’s not the case for me or for a lot of people like me.”
Though their experiences may differ in the particulars, millions of baby boomers like Denise Dabney are facing similar situations. For reasons ranging from financial necessity to fear of boredom, an increasing number of them are not ready or able to retire, at least not fully. According to the US Census Bureau, 16.2 percent of people 65 and older were in the labor force in 2011, up from 12.1 percent in 1990. Nearly half of these older adults are working full time. Meanwhile, many boomers who were laid off during the recession have had a hard time finding jobs: Workers in their 50s were about 20 percent less likely than those who were 25 to 34 to find new positions, according to a 2012 Urban Institute study. And those they did find tended to pay a lot less than their old ones.
“In the past, we’ve associated retirement with the concept of full-time leisure,” says Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, director of the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. “But the percentage of people who say their ideal is complete leisure continues to go down.” The meaning of “work” has dramatically evolved to include more than just the things you get paid to do. “To many people, ‘work’ now means being productive as long as they can. They want to be recognized as contributing human beings. They want to be valued,” says Pitt-Catsouphes. “The new normal is that retirement is going to include some amount of paid work, at least for some period of time.”
IT’S CONVENIENT to divide boomer workers into two groups: those who want to work and those who need to. But the reality for most people exists somewhere in between. “People who have to work for financial reasons say they get some value out of it,” says Pitt-Catsouphes, “and people who really don’t have to work appreciate the extra income and security.”
At 67, Pat Conaway is driven more by the desire to contribute to his community than to his bank account. After 40 years of teaching mostly special education, Conaway retired from Wayland Public Schools in 2008. He was glad to get away from the paperwork and bureaucracy that goes with being a public school teacher, but he missed some of the things he loved most about the classroom, such as getting young people involved in public service and “fired up about their local environment.”
Because the Natick resident can get by on his pension — “I don’t live high,” he says — Conaway was able to focus on his passion for conservation. Six months after retiring, he established Big Heart Little Feet, organizing volunteers to clean up litter, repair trails, and otherwise improve parks, waterways, and open spaces in Natick and elsewhere. In addition to the students and parents who help out, many of the people who lend a hand are also retirees. “I don’t think they really want to just play golf seven days a week,” he says. “The challenge is to find a way to engage them. What we do as a group is not only useful, but fun.”
For other boomers, like Joan Arruda, continuing to work is not a matter of choice — it is a financial necessity, one made especially difficult in an economy still in recovery after a long recession. In her earlier years, the 58-year-old lifelong Cambridge resident held a series of full-time jobs in her native city. One of them was with Cambridge Public Schools, and during summer breaks Arruda clerked at a Star Market. In 2000, after leaving her position with the school system and spending several years caring for her young children, she went to work full time for the Shaw’s/Star chain, soon advancing to bakery manager. But by the end of the decade, the economy in general and Shaw’s in particular were going through tough times. “People were being laid off, our bonuses were being cut, and stores were being closed,” Arruda says. “I saw my pay and benefits going down every year. I was divorced with two kids. I needed more security.” Continued...