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Is Retirement Even Possible?

Millions of people age 70+ are still on the job.

Erma Paliani had worked a lot longer than she planned. But at age 92, Paliani finally called it quits this summer.

“I didn’t expect to work this long,” says the soft-spoken Paliani, who became a secretary for the federal government 67 years ago when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, and eventually worked longer than nearly any other federal employee. For most of those years, the fear of not having enough money to live comfortably, a worry rooted in her experience of the Great Depression, compelled her to stay on the job.

Money worries also drive Jeanne Phillips, 85, who plans to keep working as long as she can, even after two heart attacks in the past five years, including one just eight months ago.

Without her job at a senior center in St. Louis, which supplements her Social Security, Phillips says she’d barely be able to afford the basics. So three days a week, she packs her nitroglycerin in her purse and heads off to work.

“I’ve never retired,” says Phillips, who was divorced some 40 years ago and never remarried. “If I could’ve retired comfortably, I would have. It would’ve been wonderful to be able to play golf and bowl and go to the art museum and theater. But I don’t have the money to do that.”

Phillips, Paliani and millions of others in their 60s, 70s, 80s—and even 90s—are changing the picture of retirement. Social Security records show that the average age for Americans to claim benefits is 63.9. But they are working longer than that—many need the money. In fact, the percentage of workers over 65 is increasing faster than any other age group, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The BLS reports that between 2000 and 2008, the number of workers 65 to 69 rose 25 percent. Even greater increases were cited for those ages 70 to 74 (32 percent), 75 to 79 (38 percent) and 80 and over (67 percent, to 500,000).

The bottom line is that, as people live longer, public expectations with retirement are in “a period of transition,” a Pew Research Center survey concluded. “Given the demographic changes afoot … this evolution in attitudes is likely to continue for years to come.”

Americans are working longer for many reasons, starting with the fact that people live longer (America has 100,000 centenarians) and need more income to support those extra years.

The modern notion of retirement was defined after 1940, when Social Security began cushioning workers’ retirement years with monthly income—and when men were expected to live into their 50s, women into their early 60s.

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