The Age Wave

<B>Morley Safer</B> Talks To People Who Just Can't Retire

There's something happening in America. It's called the Age Wave, a social revolution that is changing the way we think about work, about retirement, about what to do with the last quarter of our lives.

As Americans are living longer and healthier lives, more and more are rejecting the old assumption that age 65 is the time to pack it in and retire.

Once again, 60 Minutes takes a look at the shape of things to come. Correspondent Morley Safer reports on this story which first aired last January.
Drop into the Vita Needle Company of Needham, Mass. It's 6 a.m. and Rosa Finnegan is arriving for work, one of 35 people employed by this small manufacturing outfit.

"I think in the back of your mind, you're, you're sort of, don't mind anybody to think that you can't do this work," says Rosa. "I know that's the way I feel. I feel, 'Well, I can keep up with anyone.'"

It can't be easy to keep up with younger people, but Rosa can do it. Her colleagues' average age is 74.

Rosa is 90 and she's still working 37 hours a week – a full week's work. Why?

"Because I would be bored to death sitting and dong nothing," says Rosa. "Beside that, I'd be all stiffened up. My fingers would be all stiff. No way. I tried it and I did not like it."

Before she became a machinist, she'd spent most of her life as a waitress. She was 86 when she joined the company and she says she was afraid to tell them how old she was.

"But he said, 'As long as you can climb those stairs, you have a job,'" recalls Rosa. "So I've been climbing the stairs ever since."

"People are here for life," says Fred Hartman, 50, the fourth generation of his family to run the company, which makes medical needles and small metal precision products for customers like GE and Johnson & Johnson. "As long as they can climb the stairs, be productive, get along with people, I will promise to find them something to do."

When Hartman tried to advertise for older workers, the local paper turned him down on grounds of age discrimination. Hartman says he seeks out the elderly not because he's a good guy, but because it's good business.

Like any business, it's subject to strict government standards. His employees don't need health benefits - they're already covered by Medicare. And that's helped the company grow revenues by 20 percent a year.

"Don't get it wrong. This is a very aggressive, competitive company, and we're very clever in what we do," says Hartman.

Why did the company decide to concentrate on older workers?

"Back in the late '80s, we had to reinvent the company. And at the time, like it is today, it was a recessionary period, and we needed to find flexible employees who were willing to work part-time," says Hartman.

"And at the time, that's the only segment of people we could find - people that had been laid off or retired. So we started with three or four people in this age category and then the light bulb went on, said, 'This is better than just a short-term solution.'"

Hartman says this was a better class of workers than you would normally get: "Not only the dependability, the attention of quality, but there's an age-old fashioned work ethic - people work very hard, very conscientiously."
Bill Ferson gets to his workbench before 6 a.m., five days a week. But he never thought he'd still be on the job at 83.

He tried retirement back when he was 69, but it was an utter bust: "My wife wasn't used to having me home another eight hours a day. Well, I couldn't find enough to do. I saw this little ad in the paper, Vita Needle. I was only going to work a few months. That's all."

Now, he's been there 14 years. He says it's the best thing that ever happened to him, because he lost his wife last year.

"I have people my age here and they're in the same boat I am. A lot of them don't have their spouses and it's a place for them to go," says Bill. "My doctor told me, 'Don't you ever quit working, Bill.' That's therapy. It keeps this occupied, your hands and your body and your mind."
Ollie Stukes' barbershop is the crossroads of the world of Manning, S.C.
At 97, he knows just about everything that's going on in town: "Well, I like to be around people. Now if I was to retire, I'd be miserable."

That's what you hear from Maine to Alaska. The old idea of the good life of non-stop goofing off at age 65 is going out of style.

In Potsdam, N.Y., there's Mayor Ruth Garner, 87. In Chicago, blues legend Pinetop Perkins, 89. Greenhouse manager Frieda Foretsch in Indiana is 92.
And then there's Al Hirschfeld, who spent a lifetime at his drawing board, celebrating the great entertainers for The New York Times. He was still at it when he died Jan. 20.

Did he ever think about retiring? "Oh, good God, no. No," he told Safer shortly before his death. "I wouldn't know what to do. I mean, that's a special talent, to retire … I'm no good at that."

Almost 20 years ago, 60 Minutes interviewed him when he was 80 because it seemed phenomenal that he was still working at such an advanced age.

"I can't imagine myself doing anything but what I'm doing," said Hirschfeld.

Dr. Ken Dychtwald, a gerontologist, is not surprised by any of this. His specialty is what he calls The Age Wave, the beginning of a new social revolution.

"People are living longer and longer and longer. And increasingly, people are realizing that just because you've reached your 60th or 65th birthday, doesn't mean you're kind of in the last inning," says Dychtwald.

"People are beginning to realize that they might have 10 or 20 or even 30 years out in front of them. Last year, the average retiree watched 43 hours of television a week. And for many people, it's become sort of a wasteland. A lot of people as they take a look at that, they say, 'That's just not for me.'"

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the number of older workers - defined as 55 and over - will practically double from 18 million in 2000 to more than 33 million in 2025 - in part because employers are going to need them.

But thanks to declining birth rates, there soon won't be enough younger workers to go around.

The Bonne Bell Corporation of Lakewald, Ohio, a cosmetics company, is ahead of the wave. About 20 percent of the 600 employees are well past retirement age. Their average age: 72.

"Work is less physical than it might have been a century ago," says Dychtwald. "And on top of that, the 20th century brought forth amazing breakthroughs in health so that there's quite a large number of people, way beyond the ages of 60 or even 80, who are still fully capable of putting in a full day's work."
Scientist Ray Crist is 102. Still on the job nine hours a day, five days a week, at a lab near Harrisburg, Pa.

"How can this be work? This is so interesting," says Crist. "Look, look, I'm finding out what's going on."

He's relentless in his effort to figure out the impact toxic metals have on the environment: "I have an inner movement, an inner drive. And this goes on and it is still going, and I don't have sense enough to quit. I should stop, but I can't stop."

Professor Phyllis Moen is a sociologist at Cornell University whose research shows that work keeps you healthy.

"My own and other people's research shows that productive engagement, whether in volunteer service to community or paid work, is the key to successful aging in terms of lower symptoms of depression, greater satisfaction with life and retirement, greater health and even longevity," says Moen.

"We're a work-orientated society. When you meet someone, the first two or three questions you ask is, 'What do you do?' And if you meet someone who's retired, you tend to say, 'What did you do?' That's how we locate people and how people identify themselves. So if the meaning of work is productive engagement and being active in society, what is the meaning of retirement?"

At 91, about a half-century older than the power shovel he operates at a quarry in Virginia, Walter Burnette says he's worked all his life: "I couldn't stay at the house. I couldn't loaf. That's the one thing I can't do. I just don't want to lay around."

He tried retirement a quarter century ago, but it didn't work. "I tried it 30 days, and I was like, went crazy. So I reckon I'm just crazy about a shovel," he says. "So I'm going to work as long as I can get up and down off of it."

Hartman says a lot of older people have something to prove: "I think there's a chip on people's shoulders too, that perhaps senior citizens are viewed as, as not as productive, and people want to prove the critics wrong."

"There's some downsides to dealing with senior citizens. Probably first and foremost, change is difficult," adds Hartman. "We've come close to mutinies over the last 10 years on things like fax machines … The microwave was a big, big change. We still have probably three or four people who won't go near the microwave."

And he says that the biggest change for sure was when the company finally capitulated two years ago and got their first computer – which was the great menace in the life of Vita's office manager, 81-year-old Mary Bianchi.

"I came back from vacation. The computer is on my desk. I was so scared of it. I was afraid of it 'cause I was used to a typewriter," recalls Mary. "I said, 'Bye, Fred.' I said, 'I can't do this.' 'You're going to learn,' he said. And I did. And it's much easier once you learned it, you know?"
This could be your future.

"We are about to become a multigenerational society, where we're going to have four or five generations of work -- where you will see a 20-year-old and an 80-year-old working side by side," says Dychtwald.

"We will arrive at a point both because we'll need the older worker, 'cause there'll be a shortage of young workers in this country, and also, I think we'll begin to realize just how much talent and capability a person might have at the age of 60 or 80."

"I didn't think I was going to work forever," says Bianchi, who once looked forward to being retired. "But I think I will."
  • Rebecca Leung

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