Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Baby boomers change demographics of working population

Staff Pro usher Connie Brunell, 61, helps a Riverside High student find a lost phone at the INB Performing Arts Center. (Colin Mulvany)

Connie and Scott Brunell were living the early-retirement dream shared by many baby boomers once upon a time. They left telephone company jobs in the Seattle area to work for an oil company in Saudi Arabia. They stayed 12 years, making and saving good money.

Connie retired in 1996 at 45. Scott retired a year later at 51.

They kept busy. They remodeled their home outside Spangle. Connie spent time showing dogs, her hobby and passion. The couple traveled and volunteered.

In 2009, after two snowy winters, both felt trapped at home. So they returned to work.

Scott, 66, works for the Spokane Parks and Recreation Department. Connie, 61, works for Staff Pro, the company that provides event employees for the Spokane Public Facilities District.

The Brunells, who work part time, are part of an aging baby boomer labor trend predicted to accelerate in the near future as boomers stay in the workforce past retirement age. This trend could help rev the economy and ease worries about Social Security solvency.

“Some people will be let down by retirement,” Connie said. “They think ‘I’m 65. I have to retire.’ That’s really a mistake. If people want to work longer, why not work?”

The boomers dig in

Randy Barcus, chief economist for Avista, will retire June 30 after 33 years at the utility company. He’s 65.

But he’ll keep his part-time online teaching gig at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Park University.

The labor force participation rate of older workers has grown steadily since 1990, and the median age of workers has steadily increased, too. But no one knows what percentage of the country’s estimated 78 million boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) will work post-retirement. The greater the percentage, the greater the impact in the workplace and on the economy. The oldest baby boomers turned 66 on Jan. 1.

“We have no data yet,” Barcus said. “Everything is a theory.”

Some of the theories why boomers will work past retirement age:

They worry about money

Barcus has always been a careful money manager, yet even he feels uncertain how much money he’ll need the rest of his life.

Boomers’ post-retirement years will stretch longer than the retirement years of their parents.

In 1965, according to the International Social Security Project, people spent an average of 13 years in retirement. Now, according to a 2010 Urban Institute report, retired men collect Social Security for an average of 18 years; women, for 20 years. As longevity increases, so will years spent in retirement, tapping Social Security and other pension funds.

“It’s incredibly difficult to know how much money to take out of the 401(k),” Barcus said. “Part of the reason people will take supplemental jobs is because when (retirement) gets here, you go, ‘Holy cow, there’s a finite amount, and it eventually goes away. What if I don’t have enough?’ You are gambling with your own life.’’

Boomers define themselves through work

Boomers worked summer jobs as teens. Women boomers swept into the workforce in the 1970s, changing society forever. Work is part of the boomer identity.

Older boomers surveyed in 2010 by the online job site CareerBuilder said they’ll postpone retirement mostly for financial reasons, but 39 percent said they’ll stay because they enjoy their job; 26 percent said they fear being bored in retirement.

However, in a 2011 survey of older workers, 32 percent of the men and 37 percent of the women told pension company TIAA-CREF that they planned “continued employment in something other than (their) career job.”

Those will be jobs that are more fun and flexible, the experts predict.

Boomers like company

Socialization is essential to healthy physical and mental aging.

At Spokane Public Facilities District venues, older workers get plenty of socialization. It’s part of the appeal of the part-time jobs at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena, the INB Performing Arts Center and the Spokane Convention Center.

The district employs just 39 workers. The rest of its approximately 600 workers are employees of seven subcontractors. About 13 percent of these part-timers are 60 and older.

These 60-plus workers often work the front lines – taking tickets, helping people find seats, answering questions. Many are retired from professional careers, such as teaching and business.

Matt Gibson, general manager of the Spokane Arena, said these older workers thrive on the human contact, even when explaining where the restrooms are located.

Gibson said: “They enjoy one-on-one with the guests, whether it’s the first time they heard the question or the 100th.”

The advantages

In this still-tentative job market – national unemployment stands at 8.2 percent – a labor shortage seems like a fantasy.

But the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects 54.8 million total job openings within this decade, 62 percent of those openings because of boomer retirements.

In a 2011 AARP survey of 1,000 human resource directors, 46 percent said they will entice older workers to remain as full-time employees to ease the labor shortages. More than half will keep older workers in part-time jobs or as consultants.

Barcus anticipates that “if your job category is in short supply, they’ll give you a pile of money to stay.”

Another advantage? Social Security is deducted from the paychecks of part-time older workers who are already collecting benefits. It doesn’t bump up their monthly benefit, but it does contribute to the larger pool of Social Security funds.

And the longer boomers collect paychecks, the more they will spend and save. Consumer buying drives the economy, and savings provide loans for younger people buying homes and cars, Barcus pointed out.

One more advantage? Older workers pass on important knowledge.

For the past eight weeks, Barcus has been working with his successor, economist Grant Forsyth, 46, formerly a professor of economics at Eastern Washington University.

Older workers teach others “not just the technical part of the work, but also how you should behave on the job,” Forsyth said. “You’ll always have office politics. They won’t go away.”

The challenges

The older you get, the more likely you’ll have a chronic health condition. If the obesity epidemic continues, aging boomers may be unable to physically perform many jobs. The ushers at Spokane Public Facilities District jobs, for instance, often stand for hours.

Boomers with blue-collar jobs may be unable to work after retirement age, because of the lifelong physical toll of their labor. That’s one reason the age limit on Social Security won’t increase greatly, aging experts say.

And though boomers adapted well to technological changes – switching from typewriters to computers, for instance – they might finally be bested by technology beyond today’s imagination.

“There are printers now that literally produce 3-D images,” Forsyth said. “They have a 3-D printer that produces a violin, made out of synthetic material. That kind of technological innovation will change the type of labor that firms need.”

And Barcus predicts that workplaces with older workers will need help with grief issues.

“People won’t show up for work, because they died over the weekend,” Barcus said. “It will be difficult for employers to deal with that.”

One recent Friday shift at the INB Performing Arts Center, Connie Brunell wasn’t worried about synthetic violins or dying co-workers. She was preparing for a graduation ceremony.

She works 30 to 50 hours a month in guest services, sometimes as a supervisor. The part-time job – which pays between $9 and $10 an hour, depending on Brunell’s duties – allows her flexibility to volunteer, show her dogs and travel, everything she once did in retirement.

“I could see myself doing this job for 10 or 15 more years,” Brunell said.