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The 'Retireless' -- Over 75, and still working

Karl Jones is 76. He's worked in the same New York apartment building for 43 years.

Peter Koch's family has been selling lingerie for more than a century. He's 83.

Barbara Garrison is an award-winning artist and illustrator. At 81, she says she has to keep working.

We’ve all heard stories of people in their 50s and 60s delaying retirement because of the economy. Well, it turns out people 75 and older are working longer too, for lots of reasons. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2020, 10 percent of the 75-plus crowd will still be in the labor force.

The number of 75-plus workers has grown to about 1.3 million people. The phrase “75-plus worker” is awkward, so let’s call these folks “the Retireless.”

The Retireless are still a tiny part of the overall work force. But it’s not hard to find one of them. I just take the elevator to the basement of my building and ask my superintendent how old he is.

“Well, if you will believe this, on January 6th, I was 76 years old,” he laughs.

Karl Jones has worked in this New York apartment building for 43 years.

“I’m happy,” he says. “When the body says to me, it’s time to give it up, then I’ll stop.”

He says he could stop, financially. But work keeps him going.

“I’ve seen so many of my past co-workers here that retired and just fade away. And I don’t want to join that clique,” he says.

That’s a common feeling among the Retireless, a growing group of seniors who are collecting and paying into Social Security at the same time. Eighty-three-year-old Peter Koch is another of them. You can find him in at his family’s lingerie store, the Town Shop, on Broadway.

“There are thousands and thousands of bras downstairs,” he says in a very deep voice.

Lingerie and longevity are in this man’s blood. His mother was a famous bra-fitter. When she died her New York Times obituary read: “She was 95 and a 34B.”

Koch collects Social Security, a pension, his salary and he has a 401(k). He says it’s plenty to retire on. But at work he has his customers, his son, and lots of employees.

“It’s just fun and we have fun,” he says. “And there are plenty of headaches and plenty of heartaches through the years, but for the most part it’s fun. And we enjoy it.”

Which is all to say, working later is not just about the recession.

“This is a trend that’s been going on far longer than the last five years,” says Sara Rix, senior strategic policy adviser at the AARP Public Institute. She says the rate at which people over 75 participate in the work force has been growing since 1990.

Rix says economic factors influence some seniors to work longer -- factors like reductions in retiree health benefits, and the shift from guaranteed pensions to defined contribution plans like 401(k)s.

But for this age group, Rix thinks the decision to keep working is mostly about health and choice.

“People 75 and over are far more likely than their younger counterparts to be self-employed,” she says. “So they can scale back their work hours. Many of them are likely to be in the professions: law, medicine, accounting.”

Of course, being self-employed and elderly can also be hard.

Barbara Garrison is 81. She’s an artist and illustrator. Whimsical dancing bears grace her hallway.

Garrison has battled cancer and pneumonia. She says about a year ago, she lost half the sight in her left eye. But she’s still working.

“Because I need the money to live on,” she says. “I have Social Security, which is around $700 and something a month. And I have some retirement thing from teaching. So those two together just pay the maintenance of my apartment.”

Working means she’ll try to attend a dozen or more art shows this year, to sell her prints. Some are far away and she drives herself.

“And now I’ve started driving with one eye closed. I drive carefully and give myself an extra day on a long trip,” she says.

That adds to her expenses. She’s had good luck hiring people off Craigslist to help set up and break down her display. During show season, she leaves her car packed with inventory, because she’s not strong enough to move it.

Garrison says she didn’t really plan for retirement, but as a single mom she was always thrifty. She tries not to worry about what’s ahead. She remembers once, a long time ago…

“I took my son and a little friend to some lake, it was very muddy. And your feet stuck in it. And you just had to pull your feet out one step at a time. You know, when you’re in that kind of situation, one step at a time,” she says.

But at 81, retirement is not a step she can afford.

About the author

Kate Davidson is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

Peter Koch's family has been selling lingerie for more than a century. He's 83.

Barbara Garrison is an award-winning artist and illustrator. At 81, she says she has to keep working.

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