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Retirees working for fun, profit -- and necessity

| Sunday, Feb. 27, 2005

Andy Oravec typically does what most people do on a given day: He says goodbye to his wife, hops in his car and goes to work.

He worked full-time until a heart attack temporarily set him back. He quickly returned to his job as a Wal-Mart greeter, albeit with a slight reduction in his hours.

Oravec, 73, is among a growing number of older workers who are remaining in the work force long past the traditional retirement age of 65. After a lifetime of management jobs ranging from industrial and factory work to running an Eagles' Club in New Kensington, the Springdale man said working isn't optional, despite his age.

"I have health benefits and retirement income, but I like golf and that's expensive. I love going out to eat with my wife and that, too, can be expensive," Oravec said.

Thanks to modern medicine and some unfortunate stock market dips over the past several years, the number of seniors looking for work or staying in the work force longer is expected to grow. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 17 percent of the nation's work force by 2010 will be made up of adults ages 55 and older, up from 13 percent in 2000.

That trend is likely to help employers, who say seniors are an ideal labor pool to tap.

"They are dependable. They'll be at work no matter what. They can mentor younger employees and lead by example," said Rodney D. Brown, program director for Allegheny County's Area Agency on Aging. The agency sponsors training programs designed to ease seniors back into the workplace.

"The only drawback or barrier could be bridging the generational gap between younger workers and older workers. We are working with companies to bridge that gap. It's a definite concern," Brown said.

Oravec said he could get by without his paychecks but, like his cohorts, he chooses to work because he enjoys having a job. A little cash is nice and prescription plans are good, but local seniors said staying in the labor force keeps them young.

Retired public relations professional Rich Sanderson, 74, of Shaler, continues to work as a published author. He also does pro bono public relations work for churches and other nonprofit agencies. He has published two books, with a third one expected in 2006.

"Any person who retires with the sense that I grew up with -- retirees sit and do nothing or retire and play golf -- may as well put a lily between their hands and hop in a casket," Sanderson said.

A recent AARP study found financial need drives retirees' desire to work 51 percent of the time. Only 20 percent of working retirees said health benefits were a reason for working.

Seventy-one percent of the time, AARP survey respondents said a desire to remain productive and useful kept them in the work force, making that the most popular reason. Drawing a paycheck, which ranked fourth in the study, is more of a point of pride, seniors said.

"Regardless of retirement income, people still like to be paid. In our society, money indicates some importance. People want to feel they are being rewarded for what they do in the world," Sanderson said.

Toni Jackson, 83, of Mt. Washington, agrees. She said her office support job at the Allegheny County Area Agency on Aging provides both a paycheck and personal satisfaction.

"I'm not here for financial reasons. I'm working for minimum wage part-time 20 hours a week. It's not enough to pay my gas bill. Maybe the telephone, light, some small bills, so it's not the money. I love knowing that I'm of some help to someone. When (her supervisor) says 'Thanks, Toni,' it's worth it," Jackson said.

And that's how it should be, said Sanderson, who believes the word "retirement" should be crossed out of the American lexicon.

"The word seems to promise so much, but it doesn't really work that way. I have a friend who planned to do nothing but play golf during retirement. He went Florida and did exactly that. He was back here in six months," Sanderson said.

His friend opted to pick up a sales job rather than a putter when he returned to the city.

Ask retired worker Terry Neugebauer, 71, of Sharpsburg, and she -- like the other seniors interviewed -- will say that generational differences with other workers are no problem.

The retired catering assistant said she was retired for about six months before she took a part-time job in the floral department of the Waterworks Giant Eagle grocery store nine years ago. She applied for the job after realizing she missed the camaraderie she enjoyed during her working life.

"Most of the girls at work have children, and I have children of my own, she said. "We talk about family and, of course, we're all Steeler fans in my department, so we have that to talk about. We all get along, and we discuss everything."

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