Friday, December 5, 2008

Unretired: Retirees are Back, Looking for Work

Unretired: Retirees are Back, Looking for Work

Six years ago, Paul Nelson gave up his long career in the defense industry for what he thought would be a peaceful retirement in Tucson. The weather was mild, the neighbors friendly. He had plenty of time to volunteer and garden.

But retirement hasn't worked out the way he planned. In 2006 his wife of 46 years died unexpectedly. He tried to swap their house for a smaller one and lost a chunk of his retirement savings in the process. Then this year the stock market cratered, wiping out almost everything he had left. Now the 71-year-old is looking for work at local hardware stores and Home Depot (HD) and contemplating filing for personal bankruptcy. "I have nothing left," says Nelson, a former Raytheon (RTN) engineer. "I am not alone, I think."

Far from it. An increasing number of people who retired in recent years, confident they had set aside enough to live on comfortably, are finding themselves strapped. The stock market plunge and the housing downturn have affected many Americans, of course. But retirees have been particularly pinched because their homes and investments are the primary assets they depend on for income. As a result, many of the country's elderly are finding themselves in Nelson's situation, low on money and looking for work. "Suddenly the rug has been pulled out from under them," says Alicia H. Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.


These are The Unretired. Seniors who thought they were set for life just a year ago now face the prospect of going back to work for two, five, even 10 years. They're sprucing up their rsums, calling old work contacts, and flocking to employment sites. There are no reliable stats yet on how many retirees are looking for work, but there are clear signs the number is growing., the largest career site for people over 50, saw traffic more than double, from 250,000 visitors in July to 600,000 in November. In April, before the worst of the market downturn, a survey conducted by the seniors group AARP found that 17% of responding retirees over 50 were considering or already going back to work.

These aren't just the spendthrifts or sloppy planners you would expect to run into trouble in retirement. Interviews with 35 of The Unretired show that many are people who did everything they were supposed to do—working for decades and regularly socking money away. Floyd McCoy, 67, retired three years ago after working for IBM (IBM) for 22 years and running his own consulting firm. But his $400,000 in savings has dropped 40% this year, and the value of his Weston (Conn.) house is down by a third. McCoy says he can't afford to keep the house he and his wife built 25 years ago for retirement. "I never knew life could be as challenging as this," he says.

The problems are compounded by a weak economy, with companies shedding jobs rather than hiring. Many retirees have been looking for months without luck. Their search is complicated by what some feel is a general reluctance to hire seniors, who may need extra training or extra health care. Gordon Scott, who lives in Solomons, Md., retired last year after 39 years as a police officer and teacher. With his savings down 30%, Scott started looking for a job and attended orientation for nursing school. "I was disappointed with my reception," says the 61-year-old. "You're viewed differently. I can pick up the signs."

Peter Fay, like many of The Unretired, feels angry and betrayed. The 63-year-old built up a $1 million retirement account as an executive at companies including Chiquita Brands International (CQB) and then at his own high-end flooring company in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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