During the United States’ gale-force recession, many older Americans who dreamed of retirement continued to work, often because their retirement investments had plunged in value.
In fact, there are more Americans 65 and older in the job market today than at any time in history, 6.6 million, compared with 4.1 million in 2001.
Less well known, though, is that nearly half a million workers 65 and older want to work but cannot find a job — more than five times the level early this decade and this group’s highest unemployment level since the Great Depression.
The situation is made more dire because of numerous recent trends: Many people over 65 have lost their jobs as seniority protections have weakened, and like most other Americans, a higher percentage of them took on debt than in previous generations.
The expectation once was to pay off your 30-year mortgage before you retired, or come close. Instead, the level of indebtedness among older Americans has risen faster than in any other age group, partly because so many obtained second mortgages to take money out of their homes.
Many out-of-work older Americans complain that they face foreclosure or have had to give up their car.
“It’s a big deal for a lot of these people not to find a job,” said David Certner, legislative policy director for American Association of Retired People. “That so many of them are still trying to find work shows how bad the economic situation is. A lot of people normally give up at that age.”
The unemployment rate for older Americans is still much better than for other workers — 6.7 percent compared to 9.8 percent in the general population. But 6.7 percent is more than double the level of two years ago — and far higher than the minuscule 1.9 percent rate early this decade.
And unemployed older workers stay out of work longer — 36.5 weeks on average, 40 percent longer than for the unemployed in general.
Patricia Warmhold, who has worked as a translator and telemarketer, would love to retire, but at age 67, she says that is out of the question.
Her mortgage payment is nearly $1,500 a month, and her car payments and auto insurance are another $350. A resident of Bethpage, New York, Warmhold receives $1,071 a month in Social Security and $918 in pension.
“I have very little after the mortgage,” she said.
The recession has battered young, middle-aged and old, although several modern trends have left older workers more vulnerable than in the past — for instance, the shift toward private retirement accounts and away from traditional pensions that give retirees a monthly stipend for life has pressured many Americans to continue working well past 60.
Another force pushing Americans to delay retirement is that the percentage of companies that provide health coverage to retirees is half what it was two decades ago. Moreover, the age to obtain full Social Security benefits has increased to at least 66 for people born after 1942, from its traditional 65.
Alicia H. Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, says older workers have fared better by and large than younger workers in this recession. The percentage of workers ages 25 to 54 with jobs has fallen to 75 percent, from nearly 80 percent two years ago, while the percentage of older Americans with jobs has risen slightly, to 16.3 percent.
But that is fewer than the number who want to work.
Patricia Piazza, 66, who worked for Chrysler for 30 years as an analyst, knows that all too well.
She and her 72-year-old husband, a longtime employee at General Motors Acceptance Corporation, had planned to retire by now, but she is hunting for a job, and he recently landed one with the local transit system.
Their home in Warren, Michigan, has dropped $100,000 in value, Piazza said, while their pensions, as former nonunion employees, will be far less than anticipated because of the auto company bankruptcies.
Chrysler recently took away her life insurance policy and optical coverage, she said.
“It’s like the bottom fell out of everything” she said. “This isn’t the way we planned retirement.