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Aging boom: Active seniors not ready to retire quietly

Marilyn Fedorow isn’t your grandmother’s grandmother.

She’s 70, so, OK, her chronological age is grandmother-ish. But everything else – the full-time job, the later-in-life master’s degree, the energy and the sharp recall and the excitement to see and do new things – all suggest a woman in her prime, not later life.

On her own, Fedorow might be inspiring if not particularly novel. Though American culture looks down on age, that doesn’t mean older Americans have ever actually matched ageist stereotypes. For many people, maybe even most, humor and productivity haven’t waned in tandem with a calendar. There have always been Fedorows.

The difference, now, is that there soon will be tens of millions more.

The fastest-growing segment of America’s population is people age 65 and older. The census predicts that by the early 2030s there will be more Americans of retirement age than there will be American children younger than 18. By mid-century, retirement-age Americans are expected to dominate the non-working segment of our population.

The coming rise of older people will be demographically unprecedented and not entirely friction-free. It will add new pressures on important things like Social Security and housing and health care.

It’ll also mean more stories like Fedorow’s.

She worked for decades in customer service management before going back to school to get a degree in a soon-to-be booming field – gerontology. She got her master’s degree at age 58 and, fairly soon after that, found satisfying employment helping older people navigate the country’s maze-like health care system.

Now, a dozen years into that second career, she’s pondering a slowdown from her job with the Council on Aging of Southern California, but not a full-scale retirement.

Marilyn Fedorow, gerontologist and aging services professional with the Council on Aging-Southern California in Irvine on Thursday, September 22, 2022. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG) 

“I guess (retirement) is kinda in my head now. My husband is 80, and we both want to see and do a lot of things,” she said.

“But I don’t see myself not working at all. I’m not close to ready for that.”

And, in her experienced opinion, neither are a lot of people her age. The “new version of older person,” she said, will be one who continues to work at something, possibly for most of the years previously set aside for retirement.

Part of that will be about desire. Everything from a decline in smoking to a rise in college degrees has created a world of people, like Fedorow, who will enter their later life with physical energy and intellectual skills that fetch money in the labor market.

“Older people still contribute, already,” Fedorow said. “That’ll be especially true in coming years. They’ll want to.”

But another driver will be need.

Private pensions have dried up in recent decades. Real wages have stagnated. The gap between wealth and poverty has widened. And, going forward, there will be pressure on older people to stay in the workforce in some capacity, if only to support pay-forward social programs like Medicare.

So, while anybody working in their 70s and beyond will be making contributions, at least some also will be filling a gap, the one that comes every month between their Social Security check and their rent.

Fedorow, a gerontologist who lives in Anaheim Hills, suggests being old during the aging boom will be a mixed bag.

“Health care will be hard. And housing. And there are a lot of people who never married or got divorced, sort of elder orphans, and there’ll be questions about who will care for them,” she said.

“But there is also more recognition of those needs, too. And more people willing to meet them,” she added.

“I’m excited to see what comes next.”

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