Retirement being pushed back for many workers

Ruby Johnson's co-workers presented her with a chair for her birthday this month. It's cushioned. It swivels. And it should help make her comfortable for the rest of her working days – which could be a long time yet.

“My grandmother was 114 when she died,” Johnson said. At 93, Johnson is an extreme example of a maturing trend: working older.

She's not delaying retirement. She's forgoing it.

“I always want to work,” Johnson said as she deftly tore off lengths of heat-resistant tape to insulate coils of copper wire that will be used in power equipment.

For 57 years, Johnson has worked full time at MTE Corp. in Menomonee Falls. “I just like to keep going,” she said. “I don't want to stop.”

Because they can, because they want to – and increasingly, because they need to – Americans are reversing a decades-long trend of retiring earlier. Consider these statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Data released this month show consistent year-to-year employment increases for Americans 65 and older, while employment for those under 65 has dropped in each of the last three months.

15.5 percent of Americans 65 and older were in the labor force last year, the highest rate since 1971.

56.3 percent of workers 65 and older were working full-time last year, a new high.

In the last 30 years, the number of American workers 65 and older grew by 101 percent, compared with a 59 percent increase in all workers. Those 75 and older grew by 172 percent.

Experts blame the rough economy for the recent surge in working past 65.

“It's a reflection of people's desperation more than it is a reflection of just positive things about people working longer and being happy to work longer,” said Monique Morrissey, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, in Washington, D.C.

Lately, financial insecurity has become the leading reason for people to delay retirement.

Not only have financial markets battered retirement plans, but housing equity has eroded. Add the continued escalation of health costs and everything related to high fuel prices, and it's easy to understand why more people see early retirement getting out of reach.

Of all the forces pushing and pulling workers to forestall retirement, the economy is a ramrod, at least for now.

“Certainly, episodic changes in the economy change short-term behaviors,” said Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, director of the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. “The good news/bad news story is that we are living longer, so you actually need to have more money.”