More Seniors In LA Are Working Into Old Age. But Not For The Reasons You Might Think
More seniors in Southern California are working well into their golden years — some because they can't afford to retire. But for many, it's a matter of choice.
Higher-income workers often have better job protections. Professors may have academic tenure. Lawyers can run their own practice. And their life expectancy is going up. They're able to keep working, and they'll likely have a longer retirement to finance.
For those who need the income the most, however, finding a job is often much harder.
"For low-wage workers, you pretty much hit a wall," said Nari Rhee, director of the Retirement Security Program at the UC Berkeley Labor Center.
"The people who are working well into their late 60s and possibly into their early 70s tend to be in professional jobs," she said.
WHEN YOU WORK BECAUSE YOU WANT TO
Close to 20% of Californians age 65 and older are now in the workforce, up from less than 15% in early 2008. And those who live in wealthier areas are more likely to have a job.
Nowhere is it more apparent than in Beverly Hills, where nearly 30% of people 65 and older are still employed, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. That's the highest senior employment rate in the state.
Other affluent enclaves like Newport Beach, Santa Monica and Laguna Niguel are not far behind.
Older workers in California have a variety of jobs. They're dentists, real estate agents and executives. Some, like USC gerontology professor George Shannon, are university professors.
"Who the hell wants to retire?" Shannon said. "I don't want to retire. Why would I retire? I'm enjoying what I'm doing."
Shannon, now 79, had a long career as a professional actor before going into academia. He appeared on soap operas such as ABC's General Hospital. He did theater. He narrated commercials. He even starred in a '70s French surrealist film that has since gained a bit of a cult following.
But when he reached his 50s, the work wasn't as fulfilling. Shannon didn't know it at the time, but he was going through something people in his field call "generativity," a process of transformation not unlike a midlife crisis.
"When you get to be 45 or 55, you look at your life and say, 'What have I done that's meaningful?'" Shannon said.
"I've done a lot of commercials, I've done a lot of soaps and a few films. Is that what it's all about? Is that what I wanted to do? No. I wanted to do more," he said.
At 55, Shannon went back to school as an undergrad, staying to get his doctorate in gerontology and eventually landing the job he has now. Shannon admits there are days when he might not feel like going into the office.
But then, Shannon said, "I think to myself, 'You're so damn lucky to have an office to go to. To be in demand, and be doing something that you like, and that pays you pretty well. Get your butt into the office!'"
A recent survey by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies (TCRS) — a Los Angeles-based nonprofit funded by Transamerica Life Insurance Co. — found that 69% of baby boomers said they planned to keep working past 65.
Respondents were most likely to cite financial reasons for continuing to work later in life, but they cited quality of life as a factor nearly as often.
"People want to stay active, keep their brains alert, have a sense of purpose and maintain social connections," TCRS president Catherine Collinson said.
WHEN YOU WORK BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO
Meanwhile, thousands of Californians keep looking for work out of financial necessity. Age discrimination and the physical demands of blue collar work can force lower-income seniors into early retirement.
In lower-income areas like East Los Angeles and Inland Empire cities Hemet and Banning, less than 10% of seniors are working.
Emma Allen, 71, has been job hunting for years. Like many seniors, she has no savings. They were depleted by medical bills toward the end of her husband's life.
"I don't have a choice," Allen said. "I need the income."
For the past four years, she's been working the front desk at a senior center in South Los Angeles, as part of a job training program for low-income seniors through the city of Los Angeles.
Most participants exit this program without having found a job. Allen's time will be up in May.
Laura Trejo, general manager of the city of Los Angeles's Department of Aging, said the deck is often stacked against older workers despite their reliability, experience and good work ethic.
"We still live in a society that has a lot of ageism," Trejo said. "People judge somebody maybe by their wrinkles and the gray in their hair, and not necessarily by what they can contribute to the workplace."
Last year, Los Angeles saw a 22% spike in the number of homeless seniors 62 and older. Trejo thinks that convincing more employers to hire seniors could be one way to reverse that trend.
"We're seeing lots of high-risk older adults, because of the economics in Los Angeles," she said. "All of us should be worried. All of us should be paying attention and caring."
The Great Recession only made things worse for many Californians nearing retirement. The racial wealth gap widened during the financial crisis, to the point where U.S. black and Mexican households in Los Angeles have only 1% of the wealth held by white households, according to a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
Allen has to be constantly looking for a job in order to stay in her job training program. Her search is documented in a thick manila folder with every place she's ever applied to: big box retailers, restaurants, daycare centers. But no luck so far.
"I'm running out of places. I don't know where else to go," she said.
If she doesn't find a job, she'll have to move in with one of her kids. But she doesn't want to be a burden, and she wants to keep working.
"It's part of making me feel that I'm worth something," she said. "I'm contributing something. I'm not just sitting on my hands waiting for somebody to give me something. Maybe somewhere down the line somebody might see that."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated which ethic groups in Los Angeles have 1% of the household wealth of whites."
This story is part of our Graying California series. It is made possible by the California Dream collaboration, a statewide media partnership between CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.