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No end to the daily grind? Older Americans plan to work in retirement

McKenzie, originally from Jamaica where he was a mechanic, has worked for the hardware store for 7 years. 'I like to work,' he says. 'I like to stay busy.' When he gets home, he likes to keep working in his garden.
Melanie Stetson Freeman | The Christian Science Monitor | Getty Images
McKenzie, originally from Jamaica where he was a mechanic, has worked for the hardware store for 7 years. 'I like to work,' he says. 'I like to stay busy.' When he gets home, he likes to keep working in his garden.

Here's how many Americans plan to spend their retirement: working.

About a third of 45- to 65-year-olds say they'll work part-time in their golden years and 4% aim to have a full-time job, changing the very meaning of retirement, according to an Ipsos/USA TODAY survey of 1,152 adults in mid-March.

That, of course, is once they get there. A third of those surveyed plan to delay retirement past the traditional benchmark of 65. Twenty-two percent say they'll hang it up when they're between 66 and 70, 7% prefer to hold off until their early 70s and 3% vow not to give up the grind until after age 75. Eight percent don't plan to retire at all.

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The lingering aftereffects of the Great Recession at least partly explain the widespread desire to put off the traditional rewards of toiling 30 to 40 years. Bouts of unemployment, the housing crash, aid provided to distressed family members and mountains of student debt are some of the factors that respondents say are making it tough to save enough for retirement.

"A lot of people got off track with their savings over the course of the recession and they're still making up for that," says Jennifer Schramm, senior strategy policy adviser for the AARP Public Policy Institute.

Dorothy Pope, 52, a special education teacher who lives in Marshall, Mich., has faced a variety of stumbling blocks. She amassed $180,000 in student loan debt to earn master's and doctoral degrees. She financially helped family members who lost jobs in the recession. She doesn't expect to receive a full pension because of a state funding shortfall. And her husband had to stop working because of a health issue.

Pope earns $80,000 a year, has $20,000 in retirement savings. "I'm kind of scared," she says. "I feel like I've got to do something." She plans to work until she's 67, and then take a part-time job she would enjoy, such as in art, photography or retail. Even so, she says, she and her husband recently cut back their cable TV service and are eating out less often to gird for a more austere retirement.

More people are already working longer. Nearly 20% of Americans 65 and older were in the labor force last year, up from 16% in 2007 and 10.8% in 1985, according to the Labor Department and AARP.

Of those surveyed who plan to work after retiring, 65% say they'll have to supplement their income, though many point to other reasons as well, such as wanting to keep busy and stay socially engaged. And there's the need to make nest eggs last across longer lifespans.

Employers' growing tendency to hire consultants and other temporary workers to complete projects and replace expensive full-time staffers also has created new opportunities for older workers. After they officially retire, many former law enforcement professionals, information technology specialists and other government employees can earn close to their former salaries while performing similar jobs. And so they find the easy money too good to pass up, says Sterling Raskie, a certified financial planner at Blankenship Financial Planners.

But for low- to moderate-income Americans, additional income is likely the driving force for working into advanced age. "They certainly can find things to (do to) fill that space," Raskie says. "If I don't have to (work), why would I do that? Life is too short."

At least 61% of those surveyed say they're somewhat or very confident they'll have enough money for living expenses, healthcare, housing, travel and other staples in retirement. But the hard math belies their optimism. Fifty-four percent say they'll need more than $500,000 to live comfortably and a third believe they should sock away $1 million or more. Yet 30% have no retirement savings. And of the 68% who do, 30% have less than $100,000 while 34% have between $100,000 and $500,000.

The survey participants pointed to myriad reasons for falling behind. Nearly a third said unemployment had a moderate to extreme impact; 39% placed similar blame on a mortgage; 48%, medical issues; 37%, helping family members; and 44% paying off debt.

Marguerita Cheng, CEO of Blue Ocean Global Wealth, says some of her Baby Boomer clients helped their Millennial kids with expenses when they couldn't find jobs – or had to take low-level positions-- after graduating college during or after the recession, eating into their savings. And so they're delaying retirement two or three years.

"I've never told a client you shouldn't help your kids," Cheng says.

Some boomers had to cope with unemployment themselves. Griff Jacobsen, and his wife, Belinda, have a household income that tops $100,000. But Jacobsen, who helps hospitals obtain payments for healthcare and other claims, was laid off after a merger two years ago and was out of work for 1 ½ years, forcing him to draw from his savings to pay living expenses and take out college loans for his three sons.

The couple, who live in Forth Worth, Texas, have $250,000 to $500,000 in retirement savings, but Jacobsen says, "I don't think that's going to be enough. Most financial advisors will tell you (that) you need at least $1 million." Certified planners typically advise clients to withdraw no more than 4% of a nest egg each year to supplement Social Security income or a pension.

Jacobsen, who's handy around the house and likes to tinker with cars, plans to work until he's 70, and then take a part-time job repairing cars or as a sales associate at a hardware store. "I can help people solve problems and also make a little extra money" so he can take grandchildren on trips or eat out more often.

For Rhonda Avery, 59, of Oxnard, Calif., the chief roadblock to a traditional retirement was a divorce that required her to pay tens of thousands of dollars of her husband's debts and sell her home at a $43,000 loss in the wake of the housing bust. A $52,000 paralegal who has $60,000 in savings, Avery says she may never be able to retire. If she does — in her early 70s— she says she'll take an undetermined part-time job to help pay living expenses. She also plans to sell her house, move into a smaller apartment and give up her car.

"I feel exhausted just thinking about it," says Avery, who has a chronic health problem. Retirement is "not going to be all flowers and traveling around the world."

Even some who seem poised to kick back in retirement are looking to work part-time. Harvey Leven, 64, of Farmington, Mich., earns $85,000 a year and has about $750,000 in savings. Leven, a program coordinator for a nonprofit, says his salary was cut 5% during the recession and he reclaimed his former pay just two years ago. While he's confident he can afford basic expenses when he retires at 67, he intends to work part-time as a teacher, his former job.

"I wouldn't go work at McDonald's," he says. "It's something I enjoy doing and it'll also enhance my income" to finance monthly trips to Maryland to visit his grandchildren. "No matter how much money you have, it's never enough."