Jobs for life?

  • Article by: KATY READ , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 25, 2014 - 3:35 PM

More Americans want — or need — to keep working beyond the traditional retirement age. But will companies let them?

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Norman Bullock says Securian “doesn’t hold you back because of your age.”

Karen Thompson is 67 years old and has worked for the same company for 32 years, but for the moment retirement is not on her horizon.

“I don’t have a set time,” Thompson said. Her employers at Securian Financial in St. Paul, where she works in marketing, haven’t even brought it up. “As long as I’m valued and respected — and I know I am — I’ll keep working.”

More Americans these days say they're in no hurry to retire at the traditional age of 65. A 2013 Gallup poll found that 37 percent of working people expect to stay on the job until they're over 65, up from 14 percent a couple of decades ago. Among people approaching 65, the percentage rises to more than half.

Many feel they can’t afford to lose the paycheck. In a survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, 36 percent of workers said they were “not too confident” or “not at all confident” of having enough money to live comfortably through retirement. Many saw their retirement nest eggs shrink during the recession. Defined-contribution retirement plans such as 401(k)s, unlike the traditional pensions they have widely replaced, depend on workers saving prodigiously and waiting as long as possible to draw on them.

But there are other reasons people want to stay on the job. Thompson sees work as a way to remain intellectually engaged and active.

“It’s really important to keep learning,” she said. “Being exposed to new ideas — that really is what stimulates me.”

Baby boomers like Thompson, now ranging in age from 50 to 68, are healthier and better-educated than previous generations, and are likely to live longer. Chances are they’re in good shape to keep working.

What’s unclear is how many employers will give them the opportunity to do so. At least in today’s economy, workplaces are not known to be particularly welcoming to employees in their late 60s and beyond.

Tim Traudt, executive vice president of wealth management at Wells Fargo, looks at this issue for the company’s Boomer Network, an employee resource group. He spoke in November at a conference sponsored by SHIFT, a local nonprofit that helps people navigate midlife transitions.

“When we turn that magical age, companies are ready to move us along,” he said.

During the recession, older workers had better luck keeping their jobs than their younger counterparts did. But those who did wind up unemployed had a much harder time finding work. Between 2008 and 2011, workers in their fifties stayed out of work longer and were about a fifth less likely than those 25 to 34 to find new jobs, said Richard W. Johnson, director of the Program on Retirement Policy at the Washington-based Urban Institute.

“If you had a job you could keep it, if you didn’t have a job you were pretty much out of luck,” he said.

Ageism is an obstacle

Securian has a national reputation for valuing older employees. It’s on the AARP’s list of 50 Best Employers for Workers over 50, the only Minnesota company on the list. Nearly a third of Securian’s approximately 2,400 employees are over 50, the oldest 78.

“To me, this company doesn’t hold you back because of your age,” said Norman Bullock, 65, a security guard at Securian who started there at 52. “Mature people are getting hired.”

Mary Streed, the company’s director of talent management, said the company’s policy is to “hire the right person for the job, regardless of their age.”

Those are reassuring words for people in their 50s and 60s. But studies suggest that companies like Securian may be outliers in their appreciation for employees who have blown out 65 candles.

“There’s a lot of evidence that age discrimination still exists,” Johnson said. On the one hand, older workers are seen as experienced, reliable and loyal. But “there are these ingrained stereotypes that employers have, that society has: Older workers are set in their ways, they’re not up to date with their skills and they’re expensive.”

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  • Karen Thompson is a marketing and communications specialist at Securian in St. Paul: “I don’t have a set time” to retire.

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