Retirees head back to the grind

More find happiness rejoining work force -- but on their terms

March 29, 2001|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ASHEVILLE, N.C. - With golf courses galore, world-class medical care, a temperate climate and the discreet charm of its many small towns, it's no wonder North Carolina is beginning to rival Florida and Arizona as a magnet for the nation's retirees.

But even as new census figures due for release next month are expected to show even greater numbers of retirees flocking to the state, not all of them are headed for the greens or the nearest rocking chair-equipped porch. Instead, for a growing number of seniors, the destination is one they just left behind: the workplace.

As Americans live longer and healthier lives, those who retire in their 60s today - or even earlier, as companies downsize and offer buyouts - can expect on the average a much longer retirement than that of previous generations. As a result, many retirees are updating their resumes, returning to their former lines of work or considering new ones and otherwise "un-retiring," as a new program based here has coined it.

It's a shift in the coming years as the nation's 78 million baby boomers, the oldest of whom are now turning 55, begin heading into what is conventionally considered retirement age: What exactly do you do with all those remaining years of life, and how will you be able to afford it?

"I knew I wasn't going to sit on a beach all day," said George Rogers, 64, an engineer who retired about five years ago from the Navy. "I knew if I could find something that gave me as much pleasure as my Navy career - I lived to get up in the morning and go to work - I would keep working."

Rogers decided to take a vocational survey, and the results caught him by surprise: It showed that he had a strong interest and aptitude for applied art. Today, he works as a graphic artist, designing posters, logos and brochures for a variety of clients - including the Navy.

Another of his clients is a new program at the University of North Carolina at Asheville called the Un-retirement Option, a seminar in which seniors explore new careers, the changing workplace and how they might re-enter it.

Senior citizens are, oddly enough, the face of the future work force. Labor statisticians say that the number of older workers is growing so rapidly that soon they will compose the bulk of the workforce. The statisticians project that, by 2008, the number of workers over 55 will be three times the number of employees in what once might have been considered the prime working years, 25 to 44 .

Currently, about a third of people over 55 and about 13 percent of those over 65 are working, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics - numbers that have been steadily increasing since 1985.

"People are healthier than they were in the past and are able to work longer," the bureau's Ryan Helwig. "People expect to live longer today, and they need more money as a result."

Changes in Social Security laws have also benefited older workers who want to remain on the job or re-enter the business world. Previously, for example, workers ages 65 to 69 lost $1 in Social Security benefits for every $3 that they earned over $17,000. Last year, though, Congress eliminated that penalty, thus freeing older workers to make as much as they want without losing Social Security benefits.

Asheville's un-retirement program is part of the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement, which was started in 1988 as Asheville was beginning to attract more retirees. Since then, the city, nestled picturesquely in the Blue Ridge Mountains, has become one of the worst kept secrets among retirees looking to relocate. It regularly tops surveys by the likes of Money and Modern Maturity magazines as being among the best places in the country to retire.

While thousands of seniors still flock to massive retirement developments, a growing number instead opt for small, college-town areas such as Asheville.

"For a city its size, it's quite remarkable - the cultural richness, the small-business community," said Rogers, who moved here from the Virginia suburbs of Washington.

The city has about 66,000 people, some 20 percent of whom are over 65. It's an eclectic set of students and aging artists.

Into this mix came retirees - many from the north and midwest, others the so-called "half-backs," retirees who moved to Florida, didn't like it, and moved halfway back north. They are largely an affluent bunch, and healthy - to move from your hometown after you retire takes both money and energy - and perhaps more engaged in their surroundings than those who choose the stereotypical gated retirement community in Florida or Arizona.

One of the goals of the Creative Retirement Center is to integrate retirees who have moved here. The center offers courses and seminars in which seniors can meet city leaders and learn more about the area.

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