LOS ANGELES — When Paula Symons joined the U.S. workforce in 1972, typewriters in her office clacked nonstop, people answered the telephones and the hot new technology revolutionizing communication was the fax machine.
Symons, fresh out of college, entered this brave new world thinking she'd do pretty much what her parents' generation did: Work for just one or two companies over about 45 years before bidding farewell to co-workers at a retirement party and heading off into her sunset years with a pension.
Forty years into that run, the 60-year-old communications specialist for a Wisconsin-based insurance company has worked more than a half-dozen jobs. She's been laid off, downsized and seen the pension disappear with only a few thousand dollars accrued when it was frozen.
So, five years from the age when people once retired, she laughs when she describes her future plans.
“I'll probably just work until I drop,” she says, a sentiment expressed, with varying degrees of humor, by numerous members of her age group.
Like 78 million other U.S. baby boomers, Symons and her husband had the misfortune of approaching retirement age at a time when stock market crashes diminished their 401(k) nest eggs, companies began eliminating defined benefit pensions in record numbers and previously unimagined technical advances all but eliminated entire job descriptions from travel agent to telephone operator.
At the same time, companies began moving other jobs overseas, to be filled by people willing to work for far less and still able to connect to the U.S. market in real time.
“The paradigm has truly shifted. Now when you're looking for a job you're competing in a world where the competition isn't just the guy down the street, but the guy sitting in a cafe in Hong Kong or Mumbai,” says Bill Vick, a Dallas-based executive recruiter who started Boom
Not only has the paradigm shifted, but as it has the generation whose mantra used to be, “Don't trust anyone over 30,” finds itself now being looked on with distrust by younger Generation X managers who question whether boomers have the high-tech skills or even the stamina to do what needs to be done.
“I always have the feeling that I have to prove my value all the time. That I'm not some old relic who doesn't understand social media or can't learn some new technique,” says Symons, who is active on Twitter and Facebook, loves every new timesaving software app that comes down the pike, and laughs at the idea of ever sending another fax.
“Ahh, that's just so archaic,” she says.
Meanwhile, as companies have downsized, boomers have been hurt to some degree by their own sheer numbers, says Ed Lawler of the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business.
The oldest ones, Lawler says, aren't retiring, and more and more the youngest members of the generation ahead of them aren't either. It's no longer uncommon, he says, for people to work until 70.
“People who would have normally been out of the workforce are still there, taking jobs that would have gone to what we now call the unemployed,” he said.
John Stewart of Springfield, Mo., sees himself becoming part of that new generation that never stops working.
“No, I don't see myself retiring,” says Stewart, who is media director for a large church. “I think I would be bored if I just all of a sudden quit everything and did whatever it is retired people do.”
Then there are the financial considerations. Like many boomers, the 60-year-old acknowledges he didn't put enough aside when he was younger.
For more than 30 years, Stewart ran his own photography business, doing everything from studio portraits to illustrating annual reports for hospitals and other large corporations to freelancing for national magazines and newspapers.
As the news media began to struggle, the magazine and newspaper work dried up. As the economy tanked, his large corporate clients began to use cheaper stock photos purchased online rather than hire him to take new ones. Eventually he took his current job, producing videos of pastors' sermons and photos for church publications. He says he is glad to be one boomer to make a late career change and keep working.
“There were times when the money was really rolling in,” he says of his old business. “But somehow retirement wasn't really in the forefront of my thinking then, so saving for it wasn't an automatic thing.”
I think I would be bored if I just all of a sudden quit everything and did whatever it is retired people do.”