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American work force is seeing more gray

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The first time Jack Leonard tried retiring, it didn't stick. The next time, retirement was forced on him and he got mad and sued somebody.

Now, at age 78, he has given up on the notion of retirement altogether. He started another new job last month, doing what he has always done: selling.

"I'm a salesman," said Leonard, who for the past half-century has sold encyclopedias, cemetery plots, mortgages, real estate and - his specialty - insurance. "When you sell something, it's like winning a race."

And, like more and more senior citizens, Leonard finds his race isn't over.

In a trend that will drastically alter the American workplace, people are working longer and returning from retirement in ever increasing numbers. The trend, which will soon get a boost from the 78 million baby boomers on the cusp of retirement age, even has its own nickname: the graying of the work force.

Currently, one in eight of those age 65 and older work at least part-time. But the over-60 crowd is expected to grow from 13 percent of the population today to 20 percent by 2020. And the American Association of Retired Persons recently found that 80 percent of baby boomers expect to work past age 65.

So, while today's technology-driven economy is often cited as a product of Generation X, tomorrow's economy will be filled with their grandparents.

And, even though age discrimination is still a roadblock, there are signs that it will become easier for those grandparents to work as long as they want. Laws, corporate policies and attitudes are adapting to an aging work force. Medical advances are helping people remain healthy longer, and a strong economy is providing jobs.

Demographics clearly contribute to a graying work force. In the 1990s, the 20- to 34-year-old population dropped by 6 million; the over-50 population grew by 12 million. In the next decade, there will be 6,000 new over-50s each day.

Across Maryland - where the over-60 population is expected to jump 30 percent in the next decade - employers, lawyers and state officials say the brunt of the trend is yet to come, but they're preparing for it. The Maryland Department of Aging is providing two-year, subsidized on-the-job training programs for those 55 and older at schools and hospitals.

At McCormick & Co. in Hunt Valley, the average retirement age is about 62. But the company allows retirees to remain "on call" and return to work on a part-time basis. Company officials also expect that, if the tight labor market continues, it will want its well-trained people to stay well into their 60s.

"We might be trying to entice them to work longer," said human relations vice president Karen Weatherholtz. "So, I think the trend might work both ways."

In 1960, the average American could expect to live eight years past the traditional retirement age of 62. Today's Americans can expect to live two decades past retirement. And the ranks of so-called "old old" are soaring, too; the number of centenarians doubled during the 1990s, to more than 70,000.

Older workers like Leonard say working actually helps them live longer, keeping their mind and body active. But living longer isn't cheap, and many of tomorrow's old-age workers may have no choice but to work.

With the future of Social Security in doubt, workers are becoming more concerned about their ability to live off their pension and savings for 20 or more years past their last paycheck. And with Medicare's future in question, workers may choose to keep working to receive a company's health benefits.

"About half of them will want to work, about half will have to," said Scott Bass, a renowned gerontologist and dean of the graduate school at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

The cause of older workers was helped in April when Congress passed the so-called "Senior Citizens' Freedom to Work Act," which repealed a law that cut Social Security benefits to most retirees who earned more than $17,000 a year.

And there are signs that the strong economy is helping older workers boost their income. A recent U.S. Census report found that the poverty rate for those 65 and older had dropped to a record low of 9.7 percent.

Bass said he has also seen evidence of a softening attitude among employers. For generations, the American workplace has pushed the old aside to make way for the young. But surveys of human resource managers are finding them more interested in keeping older workers on their staffs. Also, employers and colleges have begun offering re-training programs for seniors.

"I think employers are less prejudicial than they were a decade ago," Bass said. "That doesn't mean they're actively seeking older workers. But I don't think the negative stereotypes are as widespread."

A decline in prejudice against senior workers may be reflected in the recent decline of age discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. There were 14,141 complaints filed last year, down from an average of 19,104 a year between 1992 and 1995.

Workers age 40 and up are protected under the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

"I don't really want to be alive if I can't keep busy," said Marvin Zentner, 73, who three years ago started a company called "Flexercise for Seniors."

Zentner conducts his exercises classes at his home and at senior centers, assisted-living facilities and even Alzheimer's facilities. In his spare time, he works out at a nearby gym, and considers himself fitter than most 40-year-olds.

"Seniors are much more active than they used to be," he said.

Zentner was among 53 seniors from across the country honored in Washington last week at a three-day ceremony sponsored by Green Thumb Inc., a nonprofit group that trains and employs seniors. Another honoree was 102-year-old Robbie Eisenberg, a consultant to zipper manufacturers from California, believed to be one of the nation's oldest workers.

Eisenberg had retired at age 70 but got bored. He returned to work at 80.

Still, Jack Leonard doesn't believe the working world is entirely ready for 78-year-old salesmen like himself. That's why he sued Cigna Healthcare Mid-Atlantic this year, claiming the company refused to hire him in 1998 - or even interview him for one of the six sales jobs it had open - because of his age.

Born in New York City, the son of an office supplies salesman, Leonard got his first job was selling sets of the Encyclopedia Americana door to door in 1946.

Using stacks of index cards with "leads" on potential customers, Leonard canvassed the East Coast using "various ruses," such as gifts, to get in the door. He learned to play a willing spouse against a reluctant one. A woman once chased him down the street after her husband had declined. A few times, couples would be entertaining friends and he'd sell three sets at once. He received no salary. His commission was $35 per sale. He worked at night.

Later, he sold "pre-need" cemetery plots, then mortgages, then insurance, and then real estate, which he hated. "I didn't get a challenge from telling people, 'This is the bathroom, and this is the bedroom,'" he said.

In 1987, he turned 65 and attempted to retire. "I tried to do it," he said. "I went fishing."

But at his Silver Spring home, with his three sons grown and gone, he was in the way. His wife, Liliane, said her husband felt useless and edgy.

"He got restless," she said. "And he got on my nerves.

So in 1989, he went back to selling various types of life and health insurance. That lasted until he got laid off in 1995. He was 73 and found himself job-hunting once more. A brief stint with an HMO also ended in layoff, and Leonard began applying for dozens of jobs, maybe as many as 80.

"I had to do something else. I just didn't want to sit around," he said. "But nobody was paying attention to me. They ignored me."

Then he saw an ad for six sales positions at a new Cigna office in Columbia. He applied in person in October 1998, but never heard from the company. Later, he learned that Cigna had filled all six positions.

Leonard initially filed an age discrimination complaint with the Howard County Office of Human Rights, which ruled in April that "there is reasonable cause to believe discrimination occurred." In a nine-page ruling, the office noted that the six people Cigna hired were all less than half Leonard's age and had a fraction of his work experience. Cigna attorney Christine Ciarocchi, in a written response to the Office of Human Rights, said Cigna hired "simply the best" candidates and that "age played no role in [the] decision."

Leonard has since filed suit in Howard County Circuit Court, seeking damages from Cigna. The suit is pending.

"I was mad," he said recently at his lawyer's office in Washington. "I hadn't done anything wrong. I wanted to work because I like to work. But they don't tell you, 'We're not hiring old people.'"

Finally, last month, Leonard found a company willing to hire a 78-year-old with decades of sales experience. The company sent him to Atlanta last week for a three-day training seminar with 200 other new employees. Most of them were less than half his age. But this week he'll be back where he belongs: on the street, knocking on doors, selling health insurance to people like himself.

"I enjoy the challenge," he said. "I have no ambition to be the manager. I have no interest in that kind of thing. I'm just a salesman."

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