PITTSBURGH – One collective memory that separates the older generation of workers from everyone else is that of a product that was once ubiquitous: carbon paper. The “cc” line on modern email is a reference to a carbon copy – the type created on a typewriter by inserting carbon paper between sheets of plain white paper.
The percentage of workers over 65 in the labor force – most of whom remember the days when running an office was quite labor intensive because of things like typing those carbon copies – was higher in 2013 than at any time since 1962.
Since the turn of the century, older workers have been coming back – or staying in – the workforce as retirement benefits have been cut and pensions eroded. In addition, life spans have lengthened and health improved for many.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 18.7 percent of Americans over 65 were working or looking for work last year.
To get a perspective on that: in the late 1940s, labor force participation for that age group was around 27 percent. By the 1980s and 1990s, that rate had declined, hovering around 11 and 12 percent.
The young people from the offices of the 1960s and 1970s have experiences that make what could be a crisis for today’s young employees just another work day. They’ve already been there and done that.
Paul Singer was sitting in a 12th floor conference room of the glass Reed Smith high-rise in downtown Pittsburgh recently, remembering the Reed Smith law firm where he started. The office had been in a different building and the place was filled with people whose job it was to get legal papers researched, written, typed, filed and sent.
That work can now all be done by one lawyer.
Singer said computers, which give lawyers the ability to do research on the Internet and file papers electronically, have leveled the playing field between small and large firms. They all have access to research and filings quickly.
What computers do not provide, the 71-year-old attorney said, is the judgment needed to effectively handle a case.
“I can get down to the substance very quickly and see what the likelihood of success can be or will be,” agreed Fred Colen, a 67-year-old intellectual property attorney.
Both men admit that they were lucky to have chosen a field where they can keep working well past normal retirement age. That’s a good thing, Singer said, because he feels like he was a good lawyer in his 30s and 40s, but he really hit his stride in his mid-50s in his corporate reorganizations specialty.
Colen said the only thing that he is not as good at as the younger lawyers is handling the technology used in place of slides and boards during trials now.
While many workers are looking to retire when they turn 65, Jeanne Clark, a public information officer for a county sanitation authority, started that job on Aug. 4 – her 65th birthday.
Though she has not been in the same job for decades, she has been in jobs that involve health care and the environment. The new job involves explaining the health, environmental and economic issues facing the region as the authority gears up for about a $3 billion upgrade.
Clark left her previous job as a director of communications to run for city council. Before she got the current position, she said, “I was looking for a job, but I wasn’t desperately looking for a job.”
She had her late husband’s pension and her retirement savings to carry her through, though her health care costs were really high.
Then the new job came along.
“This is the most important public health and environmental issue the region has to deal with,” Clark said, describing the wet weather plan that will lessen the amount of sewage that makes it untreated into the region’s waterways. Currently, when just one-tenth of an inch of rain falls, there is a release of sewage into a river or stream somewhere from the system.
There is a lot to learn in Clark’s new job. The interview process, she said, “made me realize that this would be a job I couldn’t coast in. It would be a very heavy lift.”
What she lacked in depth of knowledge about sewer systems and EPA regulations pertaining to sewerage, she made up in the years of being able to take complex environmental topics and translate them to the public.
“I have a reputation that people can come to me with questions and I will work to get what they need in a language they understand,” she said. “I’m also not afraid to say at this age, ‘I don’t know. I’ll get back to you.’ When you’re younger, you’re afraid to say that.”
If Elizabeth Behrend needed a good reason to stop going into the office, the truck that hit the 90-year-old probably provided the best one.
Before she married, Behrend was a chemist who worked during World War II and held two patents related to synthetic rubber for tires. She became a legal administrator when her husband graduated from law school and needed help running a law office.
In June, Behrend was heading home from the firm when she was hit by a pickup truck. The accident, which was captured by a camera on a bus, threw her up into the air. She landed on the pavement and then flipped onto her other side.
Her right arm was broken so badly the doctors considered amputation. She was hospitalized until mid-July and has been in physical therapy for her arm and for a head injury since.
In September, she started to come back to work to the firm she and her husband started in 1966 and that her children still run. “They told me my mail was piling up,” she said.
She now works two days a week, managing meetings, handling paperwork and checking on an apartment complex she manages outside the city.
When asked why she still comes to work, she answered the question with a question: “What else would I do? I have friends in the nursing home. They play cards.”
She is more worried about whether she should stay in her home than about whether she should retire.
Behrend continues to come downtown – her grandson drives her – and she is always keeping her eyes open for better office space for the firm and planning renovations to the apartment complex she owns.
“Why not?” she said. “It’s not heavy lifting and I seem to have most of my faculties.”