80 JUST ANOTHER NUMBER FOR MANY U.S. WORKERS President Biden is among growing number of working octogenarians. By TARA BAHRAMPOUR Washington Post
John Tomkins operated a forklift while loading onrete asts on Thursday in Algodones, N.M. He is 77 and plans to keep working after he turns 80.
Last year, when Bob Hyde was 78, he stood in front of a mirror and decided it was time to retire. Hyde, who lives in Rio Rancho, N.M., ran his own accounting company and was glad to be free of deadlines, payroll and hiring. He learned to make sourdough bread and kimchi, and began learning to play the clarinet.
But retirement lasted less than a year. "I missed the engagement," he said. Hyde had been employed since he left home at 16 and joined the British army. Now, on the cusp of 80, he is back in the workforce, doing accounting for a concrete company.
"I found I needed something to engage my mind," Hyde said, adding that he has a cushy job compared to his 77-year-old boss, who is "out there every day as they're pouring concrete."
"I think retirement is voluntarily putting one foot in the grave, or if you like, ordering up the particle board box."
Much hand-wringing has accompanied the fact that Joe Biden is by far the oldest person to hold the nation's highest office. When he turned 80 last Sunday , he became the first octogenarian to serve as president, spurring questions about how old is too old for the job.
But working past 80, while still the exception, is not as rare as it once was. In recent decades, the number of octogenarians in the U.S. workforce has soared, from around 110,000, or 2.5%, of the 80-plus population in 1980 to a high of around 734,000, or 6%, in 2019, according to a Washington Post analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Last year, it wasabout 693,000, or 5.5%.
That makes sense, given that American life expectancy has steadily increased — from 47 for a baby born in 1900 to 68 in 1950 and 79 in 2019, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.
"An 80-year-old today and an 80-yearold 20 years ago represent different pockets of individuals; they're not directly comparable," said Dan Belsky, assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. "Today there are many physically active, cognitively healthy 80-year-olds, taking classes, running around, governing."
Ageism can make it harder for older people seeking employment, but unlike countries with broad mandatory retirement ages, the United States has few restrictions on working after a certain age (commercial pilots, for example, must retire by 65).
Scott Goldstein, 80, started working at Hecht's department store in Washington, D.C., when he was 14; he is now a lawyer working 40 hours a week in Miami and has no intention of stopping. "I've seen friends who have sort of retired and deteriorated mentally, and I don't want that to happen to me," said Goldstein, who is also a pilot and flies small planes on weekend."I remain mentally alert while I work."
Some brain changes do take place in older age — for example, the ability to multi-task might slow down, said Joe Verghese, chief of cognitive and motor aging and of geriatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Health System.
But absent disease affecting cognition, older workers also have some advantages, Verghese said. For example, people often become better decisionmakers as they age.
"Your judgment is a factor of not only biological process, but experience,and your judgment skills might actually improve over time because you have multiple experiences to draw from," he said.
John Tomkins, 77, owner of Precast Manufacturing New Mexico, where Hyde is employed, still works 40 to 60 hours a week because he can't afford to retire.
"This is a small business, I've invested my life and my money into it," he said, adding that he started working at the company, which his father started, in 1958 at age 12.
A widower, Tomkins would like to travel and see more of the country, he said. But "every time I think about selling it there is something that happens that prevents me from doing so."
Elizabeth Shaughnessy, 85, is president of the Berkeley Chess School, which she founded in 1982. The organization brings chess to around 150 schools in the San Francisco Bay Area and hosts classes and tournaments. Shaughnessy estimates that she works at least 40 hours a week, including many weekends.
"It never occurred to me that I would be doing anything else," she said. "I'm not the sort of person who sort of wondered all my life when I might retire." When the game first clicks for a child, she said, "to see their little eyes, the joy of that moment, it's very wonderful. ... It energizes me."
Hazel Domangue, 82, teaches memoir writing to seniors and U.S. veterans at Howard Community College in Columbia, Md., and recently formed a company, Precise Expression, to offer writing instruction. She said her views on working in old age have evolved.
"When I was younger I thought the same thing that others think — 'No, he's too old, he should have retired a long time ago,' " she said. "But as I grew older, grew old, it's just not true."