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Broken Promises: More Seniors Work Deep Into Retirement

Today, 10 percent of the nation’s seniors live below the federal poverty line.

Jack Pesulima is seen at his house in Southern California. Photo courtesy of Gina Palencar, his daughter who works for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. (Photo: Courtesy of Payl Nyhan / Equal Voice)

Jack Pesulima has spent 50 years working in Southern California’s aerospace industry, repairing planes for the former Western Airlines, working on the Space Shuttle at Rocketdyne and repairing jet engines throughout the region.

During the industry’s inevitable downturns, Pesulima kept working, taking graveyard shifts as a security guard at a local hospital and even working as a groundskeeper. When his oldest daughter went off to college, he got a second job, working two shifts at different companies to help cover the costs.

At 69, Pesulima is still working because all those jobs never yielded enough for him to stop and retire. He is among nearly one in four aging Americans – age 65 or older – who are still working, an overlooked aspect of the monthly federal unemployment report released on Oct 2.

Today, 10 percent of the nation’s seniors live below the federal poverty line. But, Pesulima and other working seniors living above that line but far below economic security are an often invisible and likely growing part of what it means to be working and poor in America. They represent a broken promise of the modern economy: A career of hard work should be rewarded with a decent retirement.

“I am kind of scared to retire,” Pesulima, who moved to the US from Holland in the 1960s, said. “I was going to keep working until I was 75.”

Pesulima knows he is not alone. Every week, engineers and mechanics in their 60s, 70s and even 80s, show up looking for a job at the small machine shop in Simi Valley, California, where he works.

“I see a lot of people older than me looking for work,” he said. “The middle class is gone.”

Fueled partly by economic uncertainty, weaker retirement plans and eroding Social Security benefits, many older Americans are still working and slipping closer to the poverty line in their golden years, said Monique Morrissey, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. Instead of settling into retirement, they find themselves among the working but struggling.

“Generally, Social Security has been (effective) with other social insurance keeping senior Americans above the poverty rate. But, many seniors live extremely modestly, close to the poverty threshold,” she said.

The ranks of the nation’s graying workforce are expected to grow. By 2022, nearly 32 percent of people between the ages of 65 and 74 will work, the Pew Research Center reported last year, citing federal data. Certainly, not all of today and tomorrow’s graying workers will have to stay on the job. But, many will have little choice.

“Quite possibly, there are more boomers who don’t see themselves as retirees…I don’t think that is the big part of the story. I think the big part of the story is people can’t retire,” Morrissey said.

Around Southern California, hotel, waste, port, and utility workers are delaying their retirements, in part because they can’t rely on defined pension plans, and any 401(k) plans they have are not enough, according to Roxana Tynan, executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE).

“I think raising wages is the core of what we need to do, and really dealing with the fact that Social Security is not a sufficient retirement plan,” Tynan said.

Not only will more seniors work in the coming decade, they will care for a growing number of seniors who can’t. Today, roughly 20 percent of the nation’s direct-care workers are over age 55, and that number is projected to jump over the next seven years, according to a 2014 report by PHI, a nonprofit organization focused on improving elder care and disability services.

These seniors will care for the coming waves of retiring Baby Boomers in low-wage jobs that are both physically emotionally taxing, unless the nation rethinks the needs of those receiving and providing care, said Janet Kim, a spokeswoman for New York City-based Caring Across Generations.

“It is a huge concern that we not only, in this context, think of our elderly but those who care for them,” she said.

The day after Jack Pesulima turns 70, Oct. 16, he will finally retire, even if he is not necessarily ready. His two daughters agreed to help with some of his debt. He will probably have to sell his duplex house where he raised his daughters, and maybe even leave his beloved Simi Valley for someplace where it’s cheaper to live, perhaps Arizona.

“They can’t afford to live here anymore,” Gina Palencar, his daughter who works for LAANE, said. “He kept saying I can’t quit. I can’t retire, there is no possible way.”

Even with these changes, he feels fortunate. He knows he has to retire.

“I have no choice. My body is tired.”

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