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Retirement redefined -- Speeding, not slowing, past 65

St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services employee Marcia Gurno, 67, looks through a grant at her desk at the St. Louis County Government Services Center in Duluth on Sept. 7. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 3
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St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services employee Jackie Hebert, 72, works at the St. Louis County Government Services Center in Duluth on Sept. 7. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 3

Sixty-five came and went, and Marcia Gurno didn't bat an eye.

"As long as I feel like I'm still making a contribution, and as long as my mind is sharp and I'm still willing to learn and be open to new ideas, and my body holds out — that's my order for how I look at retirement."

The St. Louis County social worker turns 67 in November and has no plans to stop punching the clock anytime soon.

"People expect me to show up and perform, and it keeps me going."

She's not alone — both in her workplace and across the labor force. By 2030, there will be an extra 90,000 Minnesotans over 65 who are working or looking for a job, the state Demographic Center projects.

Some will do so because they want to work.

Some won't be able to get by without.

"For me it's a personal choice, but I know people in my world who have no choice," Gurno said.

Access to employer retirement plans, health care needs and long-term planning can make retirement, for those who want it, a sure thing or a laughable luxury. But the rise in working longer also reflects a shift in the very nature of careers.

"It's changed a lot since I was young, when there was that 40-year plan," Gurno said. "You stay in the same job for 40 years and you leave with Social Security and, if you're lucky, a pension."

Want to work

Though Gurno could tap her own pension any day, something few American workers can count on in retirement anymore, being at work is part of the fabric of her life, just like spending time with her grandkids.

"I have a busy home life, a full social life, there are many things I enjoy doing," she said. "I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything in life — I feel more fulfilled the longer I can work and be productive."

One of her coworkers at the county, Jackie Hebert, said the same thing.

"I enjoy my work, I like the people I work with and what we do here — I'm in the intellectual disabilities unit working with social workers," said Hebert, 72. "It's kind of nice to have something to do every day. And having more income than I would have otherwise."

Both feel that 65 is a more flexible retirement deadline than policymakers and society overall would make it seem, and a growing number of baby boomers who everyday pass that age agree.

"The dividing line between retirement and employment has become more and more porous," says a Bureau of Labor Statistics report from last year.

The trend is expected to continue well into future generations: Nearly half of Minnesotans aged 65 to 69 will be in the labor force by 2050, according to the state's projections. But as life expectancy grows and health care keeps us on our feet longer, there will be plenty among the over-70 crowd collecting paychecks as well.

For example: Dick Barlage gets up early every morning and more days than not heads to the former Caribou Lake School where he coordinates the sheet metal journeyman program for 30 to 40 hours a week. He's 80.

"Every once in awhile someone asks when I'll walk away, and I say I don't have a clue. I enjoy what I do, and I think it's worthwhile," the Esko man said. "I've put out a lot of apprentices in the last 40 years — and now some of them are retiring."

Not Barlage. And even if he did stop working, he wouldn't stop moving.

"I don't know anybody who sits around in a rocking chair," he said.

Need to work

On the other hand, Barlage knows folks staying in their jobs for health insurance.

"A lot of people are working past the retirement age, and a lot of them do that because of health benefits — health insurance costs a lot of money," he said.

Hebert said that certainly factors into her decision to stay on the job, and Gurno said two of her kids still depend on her insurance.

"It's a little bit of both (needing and wanting to work)," she said. "More it's that sense of purpose and fulfillment."

For those who need the money — for health insurance or living expenses — purpose would be an added bonus.

Half of all workers across the country don't contribute to an employer-based retirement plan, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. In retirement these workers will largely have to depend on Social Security, which is on course to run out of money to pay full benefits by 2034.

In Minnesota and Wisconsin the personal retirement savings rate is better — the best in the nation, in fact — with 61 percent of workers contributing.

For the state's non-white workers, however, it's a different story, as they on average have less access to workplace retirement plans and participate in those plans less than the population overall, according to Pew. The same is true for lower-income workers.

"The generic retirement advice that's out there ... is based on the lifespan and life assumption of upper-middle-class if not wealthy individuals," said Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, CEO of Global Policy Solutions. "For the individual worker, they need to look at individual circumstances."

Plan

Financial planners couldn't agree more.

"Most people just assume it will be all right," said Daniel Moseley with Northwestern Mutual in Duluth, who said that attention needs to be given to the "everyday American who has not planned for their longevity."

"People often make emotional and not logical decisions," he said. "You can retire at 55 and live to 100 comfortably with proper planning."

That kind of foresight means confronting our mortality head-on.

"If we had a crystal ball and we knew when that final day was, this would be easy," said Nick Garramone, a financial planner with Edward Jones in Duluth. "But we don't. It comes back to balance, and what kind of planning have you done — and has it been enough?"

If projections hold, baby boomers are just the first generation to increase the share of older workers in the labor force after decades of decline, as Generation X and millennials are both expected to stay in the workforce longer. (There was a point not even a century ago when retirement was not an established concept — U.S. life expectancy in 1920 was 55, but those who lived longer often worked longer.)

Social safety nets, long-term planning and health care could all play a role in the average retirement age continuing to creep up — it's already risen from 57 to 61 since 1994, according to Gallup polling.

For those who have a choice, Jackie Hebert said it's rewarding to keep speeding past 65 without a second thought.

"If they feel like working, and it feels good to them to be on the job, with other people, then keep on doing it. And if they feel like retiring, and they're sitting at home being a couch potato, then they should get out and volunteer."

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative/enterprise reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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