Older Workers Challenge Traditional Notions of Retirement

Dec 11, 2017

Age 65 used to be the golden age to retire. But as guaranteed pensions dwindle and life expectancy grows, more people are working well beyond their 60s. The result is changing what it means to retire.

The first installment of our series, “The Changing Face of Aging: Challenges and Opportunities,” introduces us to two mature workers who hope to bring home a paycheck for years to come.

Ed Digrigorio readily admits he doesn’t know much about cars. He’s a familiar face, though, in auto repair shops from Sandwich to Yarmouth. He’s a driver for Orleans Auto Supply, a small, locally-owned chain that delivers car and truck parts to auto body shops across the Cape.

“It’s not back-breaking or anything,” he said. “Sometimes it feels that way, and then I say to myself, ‘You know, Ed, you’re 77—give it a break.’”

At age 77, DiGregorio has no intention of retiring either—he already tried that once before, when he moved to the Cape with his wife after a career as a construction superintendent outside Boston. Once they got settled in Dennis, DiGregorio got restless.

“That’s basically how it all happened,” he said. “I just said to her one day, ‘I can’t hang around here all day, I’ve got to find something to do.’ So she said, ‘Alright, go ahead.’”

As a so-called mature worker, DiGregorio is not alone. More than 30% of the Cape’s labor force is over 55 years old. Some are working for the pleasure of it. Many others work to make ends meet in a region with a high cost of living.

The UMass Donahue Institute estimates it costs a retired couple who own their home a minimum of $24,000 a year to live on Cape Cod. Social security payments can help, but the average benefit is only about $14,000 a year, which can make for a tight budget for someone with little or no savings.

And, while some local businesses have embraced older employees, some would-be workers still find it hard to break into the job market, especially if they’ve been out of work for a while.

Cherryl Pavao, 56, is an administrative assistant at Outer Cape Health Services in Harwich. She got the part-time position through the Mature Workers Program at Elder Services of Cape Cod.
Credit Kathryn Eident / WCAI-FM

Cherryl Pavao knows this first-hand. After 20 years at home caring for her children and grandchild, the 56-year-old needed to go back to work last year.

“It was hard. I just went down Route 28 filling out applications. And probably because of the big hole in my references, no one contacted me,” she said. “And I thought, ‘I’m never going to get a job like this.’”

It wasn’t until she enrolled in the Mature Workers Program, a federally funded job placement program for income-qualifying residents, that Pavao got a position as an administrative assistant at Outer Cape Health in Harwich.

“It’s part-time, which is perfect,” she said. “I was a little overwhelmed at first—just the whole getting back into getting up and getting for work every day, and trying to fit my normal life into having a job, too. But it’s been good.”

Pavao’s story is a familiar one for Laura Roskos, who directs the Mature Workers Program at Elder Services of Cape Cod.

Roskos says people who leave the workforce for long periods of time often face two challenges when they decide to find a job again: they need to rebuild their self-confidence, and they also need to convince employers to take the risk of hiring them.

“A lot of [employers] will assume that you're retired by choice,” she said. “So you have to step out of people’s expectations and let them know that you actually would be available for paid work.”

Roskos works with program members, like Pavao, to help them identify their skills, then learn how to market them to potential employers. The result can be transformative. Six months into her new position, Pavao says her motivation for coming to work has evolved.

“At first it was financial, but now that I’ve gone back to work, it has really helped my self-esteem and sense of self to be back at work,” she said. “I feel very productive now.”

Back at Orleans Auto Supply, Ed DiGregorio’s boss, Dick Fairbanks, doesn’t need to be convinced to hire older workers. Fairbanks employs about 50 part-time drivers, and most of them are over age 55.

“We get an enormously varied group of people: former police officers, firefighters, credit managers, outside sales managers—which is also part of the plus,” he said. “When you have a varied workforce, the conversations are more interesting, the culture’s a little more interesting, so it helps us out on that side, too.”

Fairbanks says the company quickly learned to make a few changes to accommodate some workers. For instance, they now order many parts in smaller boxes, so they’re easier to lift. Fairbanks also schedules drivers to allow them to keep appointments and have regular family time.

“It’s a matter of opening your mind to the possibilities of seeing the value of that workforce and making some small adjustments for them,” he said.

Of course, not all industries can adjust so easily. But for those that can, Fairbanks has this advice on hiring older workers:

“I would look at them like I’d look at any candidate,” he said. “Are they capable of doing the job the way we need it done, and for what we’re willing to pay? If the answers to those questions is ‘yes,’ then you have to consider that candidate.”

He says with that outlook, there can be benefits for all involved.