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For boomers, it's an era of ‘work til you drop'
LOS ANGELES -- When Paula Symons joined the U.S. workforce in 1972, typewriters in her office clacked nonstop, people answered the telephones and the hot new technology revolutionizing communication was the fax machine.
Symons, fresh out of college, entered this brave new world thinking she'd do pretty much what her parents' generation did: Work for just one or two companies over about 45 years before bidding farewell to co-workers at a retirement party and heading off into her sunset years with a pension.
Forty years into that run, the 60-year-old communications specialist for a Wisconsin-based insurance company has worked more than a half-dozen jobs. She's been laid off, downsized and seen the pension disappear with only a few thousand dollars accrued when it was frozen.
So, five years from the age when people once retired, she laughs when she describes her future plans.
"I'll probably just work until I drop," she said, a sentiment expressed, with varying degrees of humor, by numerous members of her age group.
Like 78 million other U.S. baby boomers, Symons and her husband had the misfortune of approaching retirement age at a time when stock market crashes diminished their 401(k) nest eggs, companies began eliminating defined benefit pensions in record numbers and previously unimagined technical advances all but eliminated entire job descriptions from travel agent to telephone operator.
At the same time, companies began moving other jobs overseas, to be filled by people willing to work for far less and still able to connect to the U.S. market in real time.
"The paradigm has truly shifted. Now when you're looking for a job you're competing in a world where the competition isn't just the guy down the street, but the guy sitting in a cafe in Hong Kong or Mumbai," said Bill Vick, a Dallas-based executive recruiter who started BoomersNextStep.com in an effort to help baby boomers who want to stay in the workforce.
Not only has the paradigm shifted, but as it has the generation whose mantra used to be, "Don't trust anyone over 30," finds itself now being looked on with distrust by younger Generation X managers who question whether boomers have the high-tech skills or even the stamina to do what needs to be done.
"I always have the feeling that I have to prove my value all the time. That I'm not some old relic who doesn't understand social media or can't learn some new technique," said Symons, who is active on Twitter and Facebook, loves every new time-saving software app that comes down the pike, and laughs at the idea of ever sending another fax.
"Ahh, that's just so archaic," she said.
Meanwhile, as companies have downsized, boomers have been hurt to some degree by their sheer numbers, said Ed Lawler of the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business.
The oldest ones, Lawler said, aren't retiring, and more and more the youngest members of the generation ahead of them aren't either. It's no longer uncommon, he said, for people to work until 70.
"People who would have normally been out of the workforce are still there, taking jobs that would have gone to what we now call the unemployed," he said.
Steve Wyard, of Los Angeles, said he and his wife have planned carefully for retirement.
He's worked for 30 years for a company that sells and services commercial washers and dryers, and she's been with a health maintenance organization for even longer. They've invested cautiously, lived in the same house for decades and meticulously paid down the mortgage.
Plus he's one of the few boomers who figures that, no matter what technology comes along, his job won't go away.
"Everyone has to do the laundry," he said.
Still, he and his wife have two sons, 19 and 21, to put through college, and Wyard, 61, sees that pushing back retirement for several years.
Until then he plans to keep working, which is what every physically able boomer should consider doing, said USC's Lawler.
Union membership, which has been declining for years, now includes only about 10 percent of all eligible U.S. employees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, the number of defined benefit retirement funds offered by private enterprise have fallen from about one in three employers in 1990 to about one in five in 2005.
With unions no longer in a strong position to fight for benefits like pensions, with jobs disappearing or going overseas, and with Gen Xers and even younger Millennial Generation members coveting their jobs, Lawler warns this is no time for boomers to quit and allow the skills they've spent a lifetime building to atrophy.
"My advice is above all don't retire," he said. "If you like your job at all, hold onto it. Because getting back in in this era is essentially impossible."
John Stewart of Springfield, Mo., sees himself becoming part of that new generation that never stops working.
"No, I don't see myself retiring," said Stewart, who is media director for a large church. "I think I would be bored if I just all of a sudden quit everything and did whatever it is retired people do."
Then there are the financial considerations. Like many boomers, the 60-year-old acknowledges he didn't put enough aside when he was younger.
For more than 30 years, Stewart ran his own photography business, doing everything from studio portraits to illustrating annual reports for hospitals and other large corporations to freelancing for national magazines and newspapers.
As the news media began to struggle, the magazine and newspaper work dried up. As the economy tanked, his large corporate clients began to use cheaper stock photos purchased online rather than hire him to take new ones. Eventually he took his current job, producing videos of pastors' sermons and photos for church publications. He said he is glad to be one boomer to make a late career change and keep working.
"There were times when the money was really rolling in," he said of his old business. "But somehow retirement wasn't really in the forefront of my thinking then, so saving for it wasn't an automatic thing."