California seniors are increasingly working well into their golden years, with nearly 20% of them age 65 and older now in the workforce.
Many continue to work because they need the income. But others simply want to keep working, even when they could afford to retire.
“People want to stay active, keep their brains alert, have a sense of purpose and maintain social connections,” said Catherine Collinson, president of the Los Angeles-based Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.
George Shannon worked in film, theater, soap operas and commercials before retiring as a professional actor and becoming an associate professor at USC. (Photo courtesy George Shannon)
The nonprofit foundation, which is funded by the Transamerica Life Insurance Company, surveys American workers annually about their attitudes toward retirement. In its most recent survey, 69% of baby boomers said they planned to work past 65. Financial concerns are the most commonly given reason, but the survey found quality of life isn’t far behind.
Labor force participation rates across the state have been in decline. But seniors are bucking that trend. Californians 65 and older have become the only group now more likely to be in the workforce compared to a decade ago, according to the state’s Employment Development Department.
Older workers in California have a variety of jobs. They’re lawyers, retail workers and real estate agents.
Some, like 79-year-old USC gerontologist George Shannon, are university professors. He opened one of his recent lectures with a provocative question.
"Should older people be protected from bad choices?” he asked, throwing the question to his students. “What does that mean?"
One student said older people might need help with decisions around money.
Shannon tried to draw more students into the discussion with his calm demeanor and reassuring voice. If he sounded a bit like a debonair soap opera star delivering his lines, it’s because at one point, that’s exactly who he was.
Before going into academia, Shannon had a long career as a professional actor. He appeared on soap operas such as ABC’s ‘General Hospital.’ He did theater. He starred in a ’70s French surrealist film that has since gained a bit of a cult following. He also narrated lots and lots of commercials.
Who the hell wants to retire? People ask me if I want to retire. I don't want to retire. Why would I retire? I'm enjoying what I'm doing.
~ George Shannon, USC gerontology professor
But when he reached his 50s, the work just wasn’t as fulfilling. Shannon didn’t know it at the time, but he was going through something people in his field call “generativity,” a process of transformation not unlike a midlife crisis.
“When you get to be 45 or 55, you look at your life and say, ‘What have I done that’s meaningful?’” Shannon said.
“I've done a lot of commercials, I've done a lot of soaps and a few films. Is that what it's all about? Is that what I wanted to do? No. I wanted to do more.”
A neon Chinese symbol meaning “longevity” hangs in George Shannon”s office at USC, where he's a professor of gerontology. (Sean Havey for California Dream)
So, Shannon went back to school as a 55-year-old undergrad. Learning about the difficulties faced by many older women in America inspired him to stay and get his PhD. Gerontology was a field he felt he could contribute to. Eventually, he became an associate professor.
Shannon said teaching keeps his mind sharp.
“I have to prepare. And I have to push myself. That really stimulates me and keeps me going,” he said.
Shannon’s current job may sound like a sharp turn from acting. But he said his old skills still come in handy. Teaching is a lot like improv. You have to think on your feet.
“If you're too fixed in what you think you're going to do, you can be totally boring,” Shannon said.
“There are times when I might say, ‘Oh God, I don’t feel like going into the office today,’” Shannon said. “And I think to myself, ‘You’re so damn lucky to have an office to go to. To be in demand, and be doing something that you like, and that pays you pretty well. Get your butt into the office!’”
Working later in life is more common in certain parts of California. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau reveals that seniors in some of the state’s wealthiest cities are more likely to keep working.
Beverly Hills has the percentage of seniors 65 and older staying in the workforce, at nearly 30%. Other wealthy enclaves like Berkeley, Newport Beach and Santa Monica are not far behind.
But in many working class cities, fewer seniors are working later in life. Less than 10% of people 65 and older are working in East Los Angeles and Inland Empire cities like Hemet and Banning.
Wealthy Seniors Work Longer
Wealthier enclaves have a higher percentage of seniors who contine working past age 65. Working class cities have more people who choose to retire when the time comes.
Click on the dropdown below to select a city.
Source: 2013-17 American Community Survey, 5-Year Estimates
“There is a total class difference there,” said Nari Rhee, Director of the Retirement Security Program at the UC Berkeley Labor Center.
Higher-income workers have jobs that tend to be less physically demanding, Rhee said. And they may have better job protection thanks to academic tenure or the ability to run their own practice. Wealthier workers are also experiencing greater growth in life expectancy compared to other seniors.
“They have a longer retirement to finance,” Rhee said. “So it makes sense to work longer.”
But putting off retirement may lead to tension in some workplaces. For instance, recently minted PhDs can feel like older professors aren’t making room for them.
During a recent lab meeting, Shannon met with graduate students to discuss a presentation at an upcoming conference. He enjoys collaborating with his younger colleagues, and said he has felt no pressure to retire. But he has thought about the claim that older professors like him are stalling the careers of younger academics.
George Shannon, 79, meets with members of the lab he runs at USC as an associate professor in the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. He says collaborating with younger colleagues keeps his mind sharp. (Sean Havey for California Dream)
“I recognize that it's really not true,” he said. “What is true is that having more people in the workplace presents more opportunities."
There is research backing him up, showing that older workers are generally not crowding out younger ones.
Economists at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College write that they’ve found “no evidence that increasing the employment of older persons reduces either the job opportunities or wage rates of younger persons.”
Based on an analysis of U.S. employment data, they concluded, “If anything, the opposite is true.”
Plus, Shannon asked, would it be better to force healthy, capable workers into retirement, where they wouldn’t be contributing to the economy?
"Who the hell wants to retire? People ask me if I want to retire,” he said. “I don't want to retire. Why would I retire? I'm enjoying what I'm doing."