As a 79-year-old physical therapist, Jim Ferris often has clients in his same age cohort.
“I don’t tell the people how old I am,” he said.
Ferris works part-time at the Woodland Care Center, an assisted living facility, and he’s among a growing number of seniors who continue working in their golden years. People who are 65 and older account for the fastest growing group of Clark County workers, which mirrors a national trend, Regional Economist Scott Bailey said.
Between 1990 and 2017, jobs held by people 65 and older grew nearly sevenfold in the county while total jobs doubled. Even after taking population growth into account, seniors represent a sizeable, growing share of the workforce. By comparison, youth labor participation has been cut in half as they become more engaged in school and after-school activities — and some of the jobs typically held by teenagers are filled by older workers with fewer opportunities. Participation among prime-age workers (age 25 to 54) has increased slightly in the county.
“There seems to be two major factors. One is older people are often in better physical shape than they have been historically,” said Bailey, who works for the state Employment Security Department. “The other thing is lack of savings and any kind of retirement.”
Some people keep working because they want to, others because they have to — and many fall somewhere in between.
“For me, it’s a fun place to be,” Ferris said of the Woodland Care Center. “I thoroughly enjoy the people there.”
After retiring in 1996 from the Department of Veterans Affairs in Los Angeles, he moved up north and works a handful of hours every week. Ferris’ job is considered a professional service; the number of seniors working in professional services — which includes workers such as accountants, lawyers, engineers, researchers and veterinarians — has grown the fastest. These are higher-paying jobs, Bailey said.
Construction, business services and education services are among the top sectors attracting seniors.
Some people retire and then un-retire due to high health care expenses, Bailey said. Also, the 2008 recession knocked some people for a loop, he said, wiping out savings and impacting stock market asset holdings. There’s a slice of older people who lost their jobs during that time and didn’t get rehired due to age discrimination.
On one hand, businesses stopped offering pensions like they used to, and wages are stagnant or have gone down for some workers as expenses have gone up, but people can also be short-sighted about how much money is needed to retire, Bailey said.
Randy Bauder, 71, admits he was “less than prudent in stashing enough away to allow me to retire comfortably.” Luckily, he enjoys his job at Vancouver-based iQ Credit Union where he finances local businesses and real estate projects.
“When I drive around the area, I see projects filled with people who have a nice place to live or work that might not be there if I had not been doing my job,” he said in an email. “I suppose that others could have done what I did for the investor, but I am proud that I was there to do that job.”
He and his wife, who is 61, plan to keep working for at least four years. After that, they can retire to visit more with grandchildren and pursue their hobbies: traveling, British cars, woodworking, gardening and cooking.
Changes in labor force participation are more pronounced among older women than older men. Women 65 and older have seen a nearly 500 percent increase in labor force participation since 1990 (even after population growth is taken into account).
When Betty Matson graduated from high school, she worked for a while at one of the first Burgerville locations; it was a walk-up restaurant in Hazel Dell, she said. Decades later, she’s a familiar face at the Salmon Creek Burgerville. The 73-year-old cashier works about 25 hours weekly and is often the first person to greet customers. Matson said she enjoys her crew and how well-organized the busy restaurant is.
“I have a saying: ‘If everybody doesn’t row the boat, it doesn’t go,'” she said.
Living alone with two dogs, she said she works at Burgerville and collects Social Security. “I still have a house payment to make and everything,” Matson said.
The company’s medical benefits are also a major plus as she gets older.
“If something were to happen, Lord willing, I would have coverage,” she said, adding: “I’m in good health … I just fly from one thing to the other.”
Asking our readers
The Columbian asked readers who are 65 or older and still working what keeps them at their jobs. Here are some of their responses.
Laurie Treosti, 69, taught elementary school for 44 years and retired in 2015, but continues practicing law in Vancouver. “I loved working with children and continue to enjoy helping my clients in my practice of law. I have every intention of continuing to work at my law office in the future,” she said.
Russ Vilhauer, 66, does part-time home inspection work around Southwest Washington and also owns a ski and snowboard school, Mogul Busters, at Mt. Hood Ski Bowl. “Why? Certainly money is a factor, but more than that one can only play so much golf and watch so much Sports Center,” he said.
Robert Gebhart, now 81, works part time maintaining equipment for a landscaping company. He grew up in Stonington, Ill., driving a tractor on his parents’ 160-acre farm and grew accustomed to working most of his life. Besides working, the Salmon Creek resident said he likes to volunteer, work on his Datsun Roadster and rock climb at Source Climbing Center. “I keep saying I’m going to quit and I just keep going in and working,” Gebhart said. “My wife reminds me I am retired and I need to spend the day with her.”
Sheryl Armstrong, 72, works part time as an adjunct faculty member teaching health occupations at Clark College. “I recommend working. Keeps my mind active!”
Joy Zerba, 67, is starting her 25th year working campus security in the Evergreen School District. “I have no current plans to stop working,” she said.
Dennis Kirshner is 71 and semi-retired almost six years ago. He currently works eight to 10 hours weekly selling wine, beer and alcohol to restaurants, clubs and hotels as he did for many years with Craig Stein Beverage. “The money which I earn now enables my wife and I to travel, with visits to family in many areas and an occasional trip to Europe, with Italy being our favorite destination,” he said.
Elizabeth Brewster is 65 and works two jobs: one as a paraeducator and another with Coast to Coast Events, which provides event security and guest services at large events. She said a lot of people her age or older work events such as Timbers games and concerts at the Moda Center. It’s an easy side job because you get to pick and choose the events.
Lance Bade Sr., 78, works part time as a crane operator and teaches a class for the union. “I don’t do it ’cause I have to,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed my work.” Although the Salmon Creek resident can’t physically do what he used to do when he first became an operator in the late ’60s, he still looks forward to work.
Chris Kroll, 65, works as a computer programmer and a personal trainer. When he was in his late 50s his job was outsourced to India, so he did a veterans retraining program and now leads fitness classes at the YMCA in Longview. “I’m the young one in class — 65 and teaching class,” he said.
Judy Burke, 69, works three days a week as a receptionist at a local real estate company. “I very much enjoy the people I work with, and I suppose that is the main reason I am still working. The money is always appreciated, of course,” she said. “It allows us to do a little traveling and not pull extra money out of my retirement account.”
John Thompson retired in 2008 in San Diego. The 72-year-old moved to Vancouver and realized that he and his wife couldn’t live on Social Security alone, so he seasonally sells Medicare Advantage to seniors and people with disabilities. “Everything we seem to use and need is costing us more now than in the past. My income remains the same,” he said. “I’m tired, but love to work, keeps me busy, and that extra money is so needed.”
Stanley Hanslee is a certified public accountant and moved his practice from Southern California to Washougal. At 76 he continues to work, although on a somewhat reduced basis. “I have two families of clients that I have served since the late 1960s,” he said.
Fran Bolte, 67, has been a field representative for the U.S. Census Bureau since 1995 going house to house conducting surveys such as the Consumer Expenditure Survey and American Community Survey. “It keeps your mind active, your body active,” she said. “I’m not going to work forever, but I haven’t decided how long I’ll keep working.” Some people as they age get involved in clubs, but Bolte said she’s never been into that. The Vancouver resident keeps working partly for the money and also because she enjoys what she does. She became a widow about two years ago and doesn’t plan to dip into Social Security income until she’s 70.
Dr. John Burkhart, 78, was a full-time pediatric dentist at Kaiser Permanante, then retired for a couple of months and returned to part-time work at Kaiser where he treats children with special needs and takes on other unusual cases. Returning to work lifted his spirits, he said. “It makes a big difference in my mental state,” Burkhart said. The nurses at Kaiser joke with him. “They say, ‘You still coming in here?’ I say, ‘Yes, it’s the only place they call me doctor anymore,’” Burkhart quipped.
Barbe West has been executive director of the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington for nine years and is starting a new job at Southwest Washington Accountable Community of Health. Previously, the 72-year-old worked for Kaiser Permanent for 28 years and sort of retired, but realized she didn’t like to stay at home. “I have too much energy. I couldn’t do that,” West said. “Yeah it’s called work, but I think it’s more about I want to give back.” Her role model was her mother, who held a career until age 74. “It’s not about age, it’s about what you can do to give back to your community,” West said.