Survey: No Retirement in Sight for Low-Income Seniors

Low-income seniors may need to work until age 70 or later just to get by

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Retirement is a very distant dream for many low-income older workers. A new survey of unemployed seniors age 55 and older with limited financial resources found that 92 percent plan to work for at least the next five years because they need the money and/or want to stay active. For those who do have a retirement timeline, the average target retirement age is 72.

Most of the seniors didn’t plan to be job hunting during the traditional retirement years. The written survey of 2,072 seniors enrolled in the Senior Community Service Employment Program, a job training program for low-income older workers funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, found that almost half of the jobseekers (45 percent) had planned to be retired at this point in their lives and 28 percent had retired, but now need to go back to work. Many of the low-income jobseekers (68 percent) said their retirement income is not enough to live on. The survey was conducted by Experience Works, a nonprofit organization that helps older workers retrain for new jobs. All participants have a maximum income of 25 percent above the federal poverty level.

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Typically a life event triggered the need for a new job, such as being laid off (20 percent), the death of a spouse (16 percent), or a large medical bill for a personal illness or the illness of a spouse (15 percent). A major worry, expressed by 46 percent of the unemployed seniors, was needing to find a job so they wouldn’t lose their home or apartment.  Almost half of the older workers (46 percent) said they sometimes have to choose between paying rent, buying food, or purchasing medication. “These people are at the age where they understandably thought their job searching years were behind them,” said Cynthia Metzler, president and CEO of Experience Works. “But here they are, many in their 60s, 70s and beyond, desperate to find work so they can keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.”

The older workers largely say they are having difficulty landing new positions. Most of the older job seekers have been looking for work for at least six months and about half have been job hunting for over a year. The mature jobseekers have a variety of explanations for the difficult job search, including the poor economy (94 percent), increased competition for jobs (94 percent), and their own lack of the necessary education, skills, and training (81 percent). The job-hunting seniors also report encountering employers who think younger workers are less expensive (65 percent), that older workers are less productive (65 percent), or that older workers resist change and can’t learn new things (64 percent).

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To find out what companies desire in an older worker, a related Experience Works survey of 787 employers who provide work-training opportunities for unemployed older workers asked what traits the companies valued when hiring employees age 55 and older. The employers said they appreciated the lifetime of experience that older workers can bring to a job, as well as their reliability, strong work ethic, increased productivity, and being a role model for younger workers.