For boomers, retirement is not an option

After 24 years with Delta Air Lines, Nancy Stiefvater took an early-retirement package the summer of 2001 but thought she had “too much to offer” to retire or live out her life as a greeter at a big-box store.

Five years later, after a succession of temporary jobs, she finally landed a dream job as a patient services coordinator at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

“It’s an opportunity to work with people in a top-flight organization,” says Stiefvater, 56. She credits her working retirement and volunteer work with helping her network into a post-retirement job that “makes me feel productive” and cushions family retirement finances.

Stiefvater is in good company in the ranks of the “un-retired”: A recent AARP survey reports that 80 percent of baby boomers plan to work at least part-time in retirement after ending their careers.

Efforts are under way in Washington and corporate America to pave the way for phased retirement arrangements, given the unprecedented graying of the nation’s workforce as 76 million boomers born between 1946 and 1964 march on.

According to new Bureau of Labor Statistics projections, the number of people 55 and older in the U.S. workforce will grow 4.1 percent a year from now until 2014 — and that’s four times the rate of growth of the overall labor force.

That risk of a boomer retirement talent drain will hit some industries hard if older workers exit too rapidly. Research fellow David DeLong of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab says his work shows:

  • 50 percent of the federal workforce is eligible to retire in 2006.
  • 28 percent of the nuclear industry can retire within five years, including engineers and others skilled in running nuclear power plants.
  • 50 percent of registered nurses will retire in the next 15 year, just as elderly boomers step up demand for nursing services.
  • 66 percent of petroleum-industry engineers have retired, and there are few young replacements for them in the educational pipeline.

When 78 percent of boomers 55 to 59 work full- or part-time and when 46 percent of the 60-to-65 cohort are in the workforce, as well, DeLong says such figures give new “meaning to the New Yorker cartoon that asks: ‘Have you given any thought to what you plan to do after you retire?’ ”

Retirement’s reinvention was first detected by labor economists in the 1990s as the trend toward earlier and earlier retirement from the 1960s into the ’80s began to reverse itself, and older workers started using part-time, temporary and consulting work to phase out of full-time employment.

Joseph Quinn, a Boston College expert on older workers, dubs these “bridge jobs,” and his research suggest the new twist is that older workers aren’t content to with jobs like big-box greeters to fill time but want fulfilling, productive, creative work.

D.L. Drake, 58, left two decades in Manhattan publishing “and the stress” behind for Harvard’s landscape architecture school and a second career designing public parks and commercial landscapes in and around New York City. Weekends are spent tending her personal plot in Connecticut and documenting its progress for the “Great American Gardens” archive the Garden Club of American and Smithsonian Institution are assembling.

Small businessman Elliott Lawson stayed on as a consultant to the suburban St. Louis engineering firm he sold at age 56 to a multinational conglomerate, then gave into his wanderlust as a part-time traveling quality control officer for a hospital chain.

He and Drake embody what 5,000 boomers recently told Merrill Lynch pollsters: 66 percent of workers who plan to work in retirement want to change their line of work and 60 percent of respondents 51 to 70 years old already took steps to prepare for a new career.

If staying engaged through interesting work has boomers investigating phased retirement, so do financial concerns. A new AARP report on “evolution-or-revolution” retirement finances finds that:

  • 10 percent of current workers and their spouses have had their traditional pension eliminated at work.
  • 15 percent have had their retirement plan changed to a 401(k)-style account to which they must contribute.
  • 9 percent have had their traditional pension plan frozen or reduced.
  • 44 percent have had workplace health coverage cut.

Stiefvater for one was in that boat, but she’s luckier than many onetime airline employees in the post-9/11 world: Although Delta filed for bankruptcy reorganization, it hasn’t shed its pensions onto the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. the way United and Aloha Airlines have, resulting in drastic reductions in pension payouts for employees and retirees of those two carriers.

She and husband Bill, a 58-year-old Procter & Gamble early retiree, also have his pension and paychecks from his various bridge jobs. So far his work as a mortgage broker, car salesman and weekend florist delivery driver is less steady and “subject to seasonal fluctuations and company downturns,” he says.

“We’re OK, but we’re not where we were,” Nancy Stiefvater adds. “But who has a crystal ball for retirement?”