NOEL KING, HOST:
Every day around 10,000 baby boomers hit retirement age, but not all of them are retiring. People age 65 and up are the fastest growing group of workers in the country. About a quarter of them are still in the workforce. But not all of them are working just because they want to, and many retirees were forced to leave work before they were ready. NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging, and all this week she's bringing us a series of stories about how older Americans are navigating the new realities of work and retirement. Hi, Ina.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: OK, so you sent out a nationwide survey asking older adults what factors played into them either continuing to work or retiring. What did you find?
JAFFE: Well, it wasn't a scientific survey - I should say that - but the results were still interesting. Nearly 700 people responded, and about two-thirds said they were still working at least part time. Now, obviously, that's a lot higher than national statistics. But most said it was both because they wanted to and because they needed the money.
KING: What are the bigger trends we're looking at?
JAFFE: Well, finances certainly do impact the way people actually live their lives. The pensions that were around when baby boomers were entering the workforce hardly exist anymore. Those are called defined benefit pensions, where you get a monthly stipend based on your salary and years on the job, and you get that for life.
KING: We do not have anything like that at NPR. My mom is actually on a pension, and sometimes I give her the side eye - just like, oh, that stability must be great.
JAFFE: Yeah, we don't have anything like that, and most people - outside of people who have government jobs - most people don't have that, either. In the private sector, the most common retirement plan is a 401(k), and that's for contributions from employers and employees who are invested in the stock market. And it's the individual worker, though, that handles their investment, whether they want to or not.
KING: So people are living longer these days, and I imagine, while you've been reporting, you've actually met a lot of people whose lives are defined by the kind of retirement plan that they have.
JAFFE: I did, and we're going to meet some of them today. First are the Abrams, Andy and Ella, and they live in Bakersfield, Calif. And their hallway is lined with photos of their travels.
ANDY ABRAMS: You know the - "Get Your Kicks On Route 66?" We went through every town on the song.
ELLA ABRAMS: (Laughter) Yeah. Started in Chicago, ended in Santa Monica.
A ABRAMS: And then we've also been to Alaska, Hawaii.
E ABRAMS: This is our New England trip.
JAFFE: They can afford this because they both have traditional defined benefit pensions. Ella is 72 and taught high school math for nearly four decades. Andy is 67 and sold electrical equipment. He was one of the last at his company to have a defined benefit pension instead of a 401(k). He retired a couple of years ago.
A ABRAMS: When I got to 65, I think it's now time I'd qualify for Medicare, and I'd really like to go on vacation for more than two weeks at a time.
JAFFE: Andy and Ella Abrams met and married in midlife. They don't have children. They do help out Andy's mother, but mainly they just have to take care of themselves and their two dogs, Huntley and Brinkley. Still, they are careful with their money. Ella Abrams says that they put some away every month.
E ABRAMS: We started a bank account that we called the can't-see-it account. It's money you have, but if you see it, you know you'll spend it. So don't look.
JAFFE: But Andy says they're not just careful; they also know they're lucky.
A ABRAMS: You can't save enough for retirement if you're making two minimum wages and have kids. Forget about it.
JAFFE: The Abrams' traditional pensions will last as long as they do, so they don't have to worry about outliving their money. But boomers with 401(k)-type plans, they do have to worry, says Teresa Ghilarducci, professor of economics at The New School in New York. That's because for 401(k)s rise and fall with the stock market.
TERESA GHILARDUCCI: The problem is, is that the first boomers reached retirement age about the same time that we had a financial crash, the worst one since the Great Depression. And the fragility of that do-it-yourself system really exposed itself.
JAFFE: And this is why a Maryland woman named Janet Sims-Wood is still working at the age of 74. She's been a part-time reference librarian at Prince George's Community College for nearly 20 years.
JANET SIMS-WOOD: I'm glad to have a job because a lot of folks that retired fully wanted to come back to work. But jobs basically are for the younger market, so it's hard for an older person to get back into working, no matter what field you're in.
JAFFE: Before Sims-Wood took this job, she'd worked 31 years in the research library at Howard University. That's where her retirement account is from, and it's taken hits in two recessions - one in the 1990s and again in 2008. Altogether, she lost about $100,000, and her house was underwater.
SIMS-WOOD: It was scary.
JAFFE: So she got out of the stock market a few years ago, opting to put her money in more conservative savings.
SIMS-WOOD: It doesn't grow as fast, but I don't want to take any more hits like that ever again.
JAFFE: Sims-Wood had big plans for retirement. She wanted to pursue her lifelong passion for African American history with an oral history project, maybe write a couple of books. But retirement never came.
SIMS-WOOD: I've been so tired. And I said, you know, I don't want to start something and then not be able to finish it.
JAFFE: So now she's focused on helping the next generation of scholars to complete the work that she dreamed of doing herself.
KING: Man, Ina, that is a really heartbreaking story. Does Janet Sims-Woods think that she'll ever be able to retire?
JAFFE: Yeah, she says she will. She has a car loan she wants to pay off first.
JAFFE: And she thinks it will take a couple more years.
KING: From what you found, are most baby boomers in that position? Are they that strapped?
JAFFE: Well, you know, the statistics aren't encouraging. The median retirement savings for baby boomers is about $150,000. That's to fund a retirement that could last 30 years. And we shouldn't forget that about half of private sector workers don't have access to any retirement plan at their jobs.
KING: Yeah, what happens to those people?
JAFFE: Well, theoretically, people can save on their own. But here's a statistic that shows how hard that is - about a quarter of retired Americans live mainly on Social Security.
KING: Ina Jaffe, thanks so much for your reporting.
JAFFE: Thank you.
KING: Ina's series on the new realities of work and retirement continues tomorrow night and all this week on NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ERIK FRIENDLANDER'S "HOPPER'S BLUE HOUSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.