When A Bad Economy Means Working 'Forever'
Part-time librarian Janet Sims-Wood, 67, helps student Andre Williams navigate the online catalogue at the Accokeek Library at Prince George's Community College in Largo, Md.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST: Our series Working Late - about older workers and why they're postponing retirement - continues this morning. Turns out, 18 percent of Americans over 65 are still in the workforce - some entirely by choice, others have to keep working to make ends meet. NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging, and she's here in the studio at NPR West. Good morning.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: So, Ina, let's explore that: older people continuing to work past retirement age because they need the money.
JAFFE: That's right, Renee. I mean, maybe they haven't saved enough, or they have the kinds of jobs that didn't pay enough to save for retirement. But there are also people who made all the right moves, and the recession put a huge dent in their savings. In fact, during the recession, retirement investments lost $2.8 trillion. And the thing is, if you take a big loss when you're 40, you have time to make it up. But if you're 60, not so much.
MONTAGNE: And this morning, you're introducing us to someone who is in that very same situation.
JAFFE: That's right, Renee. Her name is Janet Sims-Wood, and she's a 67-year-old librarian.
JANET SIMS-WOOD: Yeah. So, this is the room where we bring the students, so I can show them how to use the databases.
JAFFE: Sims-Wood works part-time in the library at Prince George's Community College in Maryland.
SIMS-WOOD: We put it up on the screen, and then we show them. We just go step by step by step how to use the databases.
JAFFE: When she began her career, working in a library was all about books. But here, the rows of shiny computers seem to outnumber the stacks of dusty hardcovers. Sims-Wood is getting with the program.
SIMS-WOOD: Sometimes the students, you know, they know more than I do sometimes, and they'll show me some stuff themselves. So, it's fun. It's fun. I love learning new things.
JAFFE: Janet Sims-Wood has devoted her working life to learning and to students. She was assistant chief librarian at Howard University in Washington, D.C., working in its center for African-American history. She was encouraged there to do her own independent research. And that became her passion.
SIMS-WOOD: My area was African-American women's history, mainly. So - because I just got a chance to do a lot of things, and most of it on their dime.
JAFFE: Sims-Wood's devotion to African-American history was one of the reasons she retired from Howard at 60. She wanted more time to conduct oral histories, to write and to speak. She also needed to help her siblings care for their mother, who lived in North Carolina. Then the recession hit. Sims-Wood wasn't wiped out, but she had an investment that lost $100,000. She realized she'd need to keep working forever, as she puts it. Adding insult to injury, her house has lost value, too.
SIMS-WOOD: It's underwater at this point. I owe more than it's worth. So this year I think I will at least start talking to a realtor and see what we can do that I can eventually get rid of it.
JAFFE: But selling at a loss won't provide the money for a down-payment on a home in a retirement community, as she'd hoped. Still, if you ask Sims-Wood about her financial troubles or about the death of her husband many years ago or her battle with breast cancer, she'll acknowledge that it's been hard sometimes. But within a few seconds, she's smiling again.
SIMS-WOOD: I'm also known as a faith lady. I have faith that things will work out. I don't care how bad they are. It's going to work out. You just keep moving. You do not stop. You do not stop, because you can get depressed and go home and sit down, and the next thing you know you're gone. Stay positive. We have to stay positive.
JAFFE: Which is why she's more disappointed than miserable about continuing to work.
SIMS-WOOD: I still enjoy being around people. I'm a - everybody tells me, say you are a people person, which I am. I do I wish I could do the oral history full time, but this does help me get funds to do that from time to time.
JAFFE: Her optimism and perseverance seem to be part of her DNA.
MARY YOUNG: Hello.
YOUNG: Come in.
JAFFE: She took us to meet her older sister, Mary Young, who has an apartment in a large retirement complex - not that she's retired, either. She's 79 and still working.
YOUNG: I'm an educational psychologist, and I'm employed by the Division of Corrections with their special education department. I work with 14 to 21-year-old inmates, male and female.
JAFFE: The Sims sisters grew up in a tiny, segregated town in North Carolina. They both have Ph.Ds. Janet gives her older sister a lot of credit for pushing her to get an education.
SIMS-WOOD: When we were growing up in the '60s, a lot of the kids were not going to college.
JAFFE: But her sister Mary told their parents that they had to send Janet to college.
SIMS-WOOD: She got them on board, and they were very supportive. But she was the one who made sure that I got into college.
JAFFE: Mary Young married out of high school and raised two sons. So her education came in fits and starts over the years. She was Janet's inspiration.
SIMS-WOOD: We were in college at the same time. She was doing better than I was in college, with a family and working. She's very smart.
YOUNG: I was very motivated to improve my life.
JAFFE: And through their work, the sisters say they want to help the next generation. Janet puts it this way...
SIMS-WOOD: One of the things that we have to understand is that we're not always going to be in whatever position we are. And you have to have a plan for whoever's coming after you. It helps you to really not focus on yourself, because there's still a lot to do. It's still a lot. When I leave here, there's going to still be a lot to do.
MONTAGNE: We've just been listening to Janet Sims-Wood. She's a librarian at Prince George's Community College in Maryland. And NPR's Ina Jaffe is here in the studio with us. And you said that Ms. Sims-Wood said she was going to work forever. Was that, you know, entirely a joke? I mean, do either of these sisters talk about retiring?
JAFFE: You know, neither one of them did, except in the context of their health. They say they'll continue to work as long as their health holds up. I should say that both of them are struggling with back problems, but they seem to manage.
MONTAGNE: And, of course, their employers have to want them to continue working, and that can be an issue for older workers, as you've been finding in this series.
JAFFE: Sometimes it is. But there are a few fields, when you think about it, where it doesn't seem to apply so much. For example, if you're an artist, no one can tell you to stop painting. Or if you're a Supreme Court justice, that's an appointment for life. Another field where sometimes people work late in life is politics. You know, we can all think of lots of examples, especially in the United States Senate, the late senator from Hawaii, Daniel Inouye, who passed away last December at the age of 88. Those kinds of jobs you don't have to keep your boss happy. You just have to keep your constituents happy. And next week, we're going to meet a state lawmaker who's been doing that since 1956.
STATE SENATOR FRED RISSER: It's the most frustrating job in the world, but it keeps the adrenaline going. It gets you up in the morning. You learn something new every day. You see different people every day.
JAFFE: That's Wisconsin State Senator Fred Risser, and we'll meet him next week.
MONTAGNE: Ina, thanks.
JAFFE: You're welcome, Renee.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Ina Jaffe. She covers aging, and her series Working Late continues on MORNING EDITION over the next few weeks. We would like to hear your stories about people working beyond the traditional retirement years. Go to NPR.org/WorkingLate.