Investments gone bad send retirees to work again

Sunday, September 29, 2002

Marijo Meade's alarm clock rings at 6 a.m. Monday through Friday, a jolting reminder that retirement isn't playing by her rules.

The stock market has seen to that.

"I really had planned to play golf and do my thing, but it hasn't worked out that way," said Meade, 69, who retired from a career in fund-raising three years ago, but recently took a temporary data entry job paying $8.50 an hour to help cover her bills. "I'm pinched."

The financial squeeze facing Meade, who lives in the Portland, Ore., suburb of Tigard, is hardly hers alone. Pressured by stock market losses, more people are retiring from retirement.

Over the past year, there's been much speculation by experts and talk among retirees that the plunge in stock prices might force people back into the workplace out of necessity.

Now, it appears, the un-retirement is under way, with many seniors poring over classified ads, putting together resumes for the first time in decades and heading back to work.

"I've been inundated with people that have retired ... who say 'Listen, we can't tough it out anymore. We've lost our money'," said Charlotte Lee, the director of Senior AIDES in Springfield, Mass., a municipal job placement program for older workers.

When counselors from ExperienceWorks!, a job placement program in Beaverton, Ore., set up a table earlier this month at a senior citizens' expo, they were taken aback.

"It was amazing," the program's Martha Stevens said. "We had people three deep at our booth."

The evidence goes beyond the anecdotal.

The number of older workers has increased gradually in recent years as baby boomers age and more people put off retirement. But in the past year, there has been a noticeable spike that's also attributable to retirees having to work again -- the number of workers 55 or older jumped from 18 million in July of last year to 19.4 million this past July, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Even more noteworthy is that the rise in older job hunters contrasts with a drop in the number of younger people in the job market. That is strikingly different from the pattern in past recessions, which usually send workers in all age groups to the sidelines.

The "labor force participation rate" for older workers increased by 2 percent from March of last year to August of this year, while the rate for younger workers fell 0.7 percent, BLS figures show.

"Maybe people have seen these large losses in the stock market and concluded it was either better to stay in the labor force if they were considering retirement or it influenced some people's decisions to go back in," said Andrew Eschtruth of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, who has been analyzing the data.

That observation is echoed by retirees and job placement counselors who say the depressed economy, lingering employer bias against older workers and workers' own sometimes rusty job search skills are making re-entry tough.

"I signed up with a couple of headhunters trying to get back into the insurance industry ... but they don't seem to want a 60-year-old who has knowledge," said Bob Blakeslee of Springfield, a former executive at MassMutual Financial Group who took an early retirement offer in late 1999.

The offer was sweet enough that Blakeslee, whose job focused on designing corporate retirement plans, felt comfortable putting $100,000 into a wholesale fishing lure business with a friend, and the rest in aggressive growth mutual funds.

But as the business lost money, and the stock funds lost value, he began cashing out to pay expenses, including college tuition for his daughter. Today, Blakeslee said, the investments are completely gone and the entire family has pitched in to help pay the bills.

Blakeslee's son, a high-school sophomore, makes $8 an hour washing dishes in a restaurant. The father, who used to earn more than $100,000 a year, makes $7.50 an hour piloting a Dodge van for a publicly funded program that gives rides to senior citizens and the disabled.

That is the best Blakeslee's been able to do, a sign of how hard it can be trying to jumpstart a career, he and other retirees say.

"Between '67 and '68, that's the last time I had to apply for work and the market has changed since then," said John Herring, who retired last year after 32 years as a fire inspector in Portland.

Herring said he lost about $50,000 in investments that was supposed to pay for retirement extras like travel. But most of his journeys these days are within a few miles of home, delineated by his two part-time jobs -- one as a weekend limousine driver, the other ferrying abused children to group therapy a few afternoons a week.

The two jobs add up to just 10 to 12 hours a week. But they're all Herring has been able to find. He's called and sent letters to several fire extinguisher and sprinkler companies, and to manufacturers that might need an in-house inspector, but has had no luck.

Meade went looking for work after it became clear the $800 a month in living expenses she expected to draw from stock gains and interest, was instead coming out of her dwindling initial investments.

The job she found, at a credit union, is a good one but it is only a five- or six-week assignment, and she's been unable to find anything else. Meade blames it mostly on the economy, but other retirees and counselor say age is a factor, with employers hinting that they're overqualified for openings or that they might not feel comfortable around so many young co-workers.

Some groups have been trying to make the transition back to the job market easier.

Counselors at Operation ABLE, a free placement service for older workers in Chicago, have been helping people update resumes "so it doesn't look like they're from the 1970s," communications manager Louise Miller said.

Some retirees coming back into the job market don't realize that personal information -- hobbies, marriage status, books they've read recently -- shouldn't be on a resume, she said.

Senior Citizens of Greater Dallas recently started a twice-monthly support group for jobless older workers, offering reassurance along with advice on networking, resume and letter writing and how to use the Internet to look for jobs.

But Susan D'Amico, a 57-year-old former computer technician who's been making regular visits to the job placement program in Springfield, said it is all very discouraging.

D'Amico put a $185,000 lumpsum retirement settlement into stocks when she left her job in 1999, and has watched the value drop by 60 percent. But after sending out 15 resumes this past month, mostly for data entry jobs, she's yet to get a single call back.

"This is definitely a low point in my life. I need a job," she said. "They say the economy is on its way back up, but where? I don't see it."

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