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As America Ages, Part Three: Many boomers delay retirement, take on more work

Dianne Gautcher of Sycamore works around her house Thursday. Gautcher, who worked as an administrative aide to the associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Northern Illinois University, recently retired. Members of the baby boomer generation, like Gautcher, are reaching retirement age in droves.
Dianne Gautcher of Sycamore works around her house Thursday. Gautcher, who worked as an administrative aide to the associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Northern Illinois University, recently retired. Members of the baby boomer generation, like Gautcher, are reaching retirement age in droves.

Dianne Gautcher knew it was time to retire when she had her fill of Northern Illinois University students.

As the administrative aide to the associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Gautcher would meet with students who had various questions and issues with their classes. During her 10 years in that role, she noticed the students becoming more and more entitled.

“They became much more needy, and they did less and less for themselves,” Gautcher said. “You could see it happening from one year to the next. ... They’d come in and say, ‘It’s past the deadline for withdrawing from a class, but I’m not going to go it anymore so take care of that for me, will you?’ And I said, ‘Well there’s a deadline, right?’ ... Just not wanting to go any more just doesn’t get it. You had eight weeks to figure this out.”

Eventually, enough was enough. Gautcher retired in 2011, and the 66-year-old has never looked back.

As baby boomers approach retirement age – the oldest of the generation began turning 65 in 2011 – various organizations and scholars have set out to determine the boomers’ impact on the workforce and their plans for their golden years.

“With seniors living longer and more active lives, and with more than 77 million baby boomers turning 65 at a rate of 10,000 per day, the United States is experiencing historic growth in the 65-plus demographic,” according to the United States of Aging Survey conducted last year. “The ultimate question is: Are we as individuals and communities ready for an aging population?”

Into the gray

The baby boomers might not be ready themselves.

The aging survey – which was created by the National Council on Aging, UnitedHealthcare and USA Today – found that many American seniors age 60 and older are on solid financial ground now, but they are less confident about the future.

About 24 percent aren’t confident their income will meet their monthly expenses over the next five to 10 years, and 23 percent aren’t confident in or don’t have a financial retirement plan, according to the survey.

That could be because in some cases, their income has shrunk. In 1990, the real median income for those 45 to 54 was $67,795 (in 2010 dollars) and peaked at $74,457 in 1999, according to a September 2012 report from the National Center for Policy Analysis. It has since fallen to $62,485, in correlation with the start of the recession.

For baby boomers, retirement is no longer a magical day on which they will stop working, get a gold watch and live a life of leisure, said Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.

More than 60 percent plan to work past age 65 or not retire at all, she said.

“It’s not their parents’ retirement,” Collinson said. “Baby boomers plan and expect to work longer, delay retirement and transition into retirement in a way that involves at least working part time.”

Most baby boomers, Collinson said, are delaying retirement out of necessity as they try to repair damage done to their finances by the Great Recession, she said.

“One of the most really tragic aspects of the last five years is the number of workers who were displaced due to layoffs,” Collinson said, noting many had to dip into their retirement savings while looking for work.

A 2012 study by the Urban Institute found that while layoffs during the recession were less common among older workers, it took them longer to find work again when they were unemployed. And if they did find jobs, they made less money. Median monthly earnings declined 23 percent after an unemployment spell for re-employed workers ages 50 to 61, compared to 11 percent for those ages 25 to 34.

That can make saving for retirement difficult: The U.S. Department of Labor recommends that people save 70 to 90 percent of their pre-retirement income in order to maintain their standard of living when they stop working.

Gautcher can understand the lack of confidence some may have about their financial future. Despite her relatively good health, Gautcher said she does worry about her ability to pay for medical treatment for herself and her husband if one of them were to suffer a medical calamity.

Both of them already have health issues. As a result of her osteoarthritis, Gautcher had one of her knees replaced because it was causing her leg to bow. Meanwhile, her husband is dealing with heart issues as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange when he served in Vietnam, and his smoking.

“There are times when I think, ‘Oh my God, what is going to happen if we run out of money and we can’t pay for this?’” Gautcher said. “But I don’t dwell on it. As it stands, our insurance and our Medicare ... and with the monies we had not had to touch yet. Can we afford a catastrophic illness? No. But do I lie awake at night and worry about it? It won’t do me any good.”

Better than others

In addition to working longer, baby boomers are in better health than their parents were when they retired, and they want to remain active and give back to their communities, said Mary Sue Vickers, director of the American Association of Community Colleges’ Plus 50 Initiative.

The Plus 50 Initiative, which supports programs for students older than 50 at community colleges throughout the country, began in 2008 with a focus on personal enrichment, volunteering and workforce training for baby boomers who are looking for new pursuits, Vickers said.

Kishwaukee College is one of 45 public colleges in Illinois that are a part of the Plus 50 Initiative.

Vickers said focusing on students 50 and older is important because their needs are different than those of younger students. They have different learning styles, she said, and might need to take math refresher courses, computer training or tests so they can receive get credit for what they already know.

Vickers said the Plus 50 program has evolved as the need has changed, with more demand for workforce training. It has launched the Plus 50 Encore Completion Program, a national effort to train 10,000 baby boomers for new jobs in health care, education and social services.

“This is a population that picks those kinds of occupations that are helping professions, giving back,” Vickers said. “It’s a chance to do a new career.”

Mike Kloser, 64, has had two careers – one as a spring machinist, now working for Ideal Industries in DeKalb, and the other in the U.S. military. Kloser served in the U.S. Air Force from 1969 to ‘73, and then in the Naval Air Reserve from 1977 to ‘94.

A few years ago, he was planning to add “restaurant owner” to his resume. Kloser leased a closed bar in Rochelle when he was thinking about retiring. To fund it, Kloser used money that he was going to pour into a house he was building in Arkansas, but stopped after project costs escalated.

“I thought a few years down the road, I could use the income as a retirement income,” Kloser said. “We had it opened three months, and they came out with the [smoking] ban. ... And then the economy took a dump. So I know I have X amount of dollars in it. Do we put more in it, or do we cut our losses? We cut our losses.”

Kloser’s bar, Memory Lane, opened in July 2008 and closed nine months later. As a result of the debt he incurred from the restaurant, Kloser wasn’t able to retire when he wanted.

“If the economy hadn’t taken a dump ... we might have survived and made it,” Kloser said. “Any time you buy a business ... you don’t buy a bad business. It’s a gamble no matter what. And that’s the gamble we took and it didn’t work out. ... So I couldn’t really retire.”

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