Aberdeen American News

ABERDEEN, S.D. (AP) _ Like a number of senior citizens in the workforce today, Gert McBurney has thought about settling into the full retirement stage of her life, but, for now, she’s content with her part-time gig at McDonald’s on Aberdeen’s east side.

“I think about retiring, but I don’t know what I would do with myself,” McBurney said. “As long as I can still get around, I think I’ll be working. I like being around people, and I really like the people I work with.”

Though she’ll turn 80 in December, McBurney still possesses a zest for life, partly, she said, because of the fact she keeps herself busy at the restaurant and she enjoys working and interacting with people of all ages.

“I really like working with the young people we have here; it keeps me feeling young,” McBurney said. “Somebody took me for a ride a number of years ago, so I’m still paying down loans, but, even if money wasn’t an issue at all, I think I’d still be working somewhere.”

Figuring out if and when to retire is a decision that is more complex today than ever before thanks to factors such as America’s robust and aging baby boomer demographic, the nation’s economic uncertainty and longer life expectancies.

Locally, it’s no secret that South Dakota’s population is in the midst of a major maturing process, but what exactly that means for the workforce isn’t completely clear.

During his presentation at a workforce summit in Aberdeen on June 4, Drexel University professor and labor market expert Paul Harrington said researchers are witnessing a trend where workers who are 55-plus have been staying in the workforce longer and planning for additional years working in the wake of the 2007 recession.

Determining what exactly retirement age is, however, can be tricky. While the American Association of Retired Persons has a membership cutoff age of 50, Americans aren’t eligible to begin receiving Social Security benefits until age 62, according to the Social Security Administration’s website. Also, with people living longer on average than in previous decades and with the uncertainty surrounding Social Security’s long-term viability, many are simply assuming they’ll be in the workforce longer than they had originally planned.

“We have noticed that some have postponed retirement,” said Dawn Dovre, director of communications and research at the South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation. “It’s difficult for us to know the exact trend because retirement is such a personal choice for people. We know we have a lot of baby boomers who will be retiring soon that perhaps have been delaying retirement.”

The word “retirement” also is not all encompassing. Some seniors, such as Ramona Strohfus, who also is employed at McDonald’s, works only a few hours per week, while others continue to work full or part time and might be collecting outside pensions or other government benefits.

“My decision to work isn’t financial,” said the 80-year-old Strohfus. “I’ve been here at McDonald’s for seven years, and, sometimes, I think it’s time to quit, but I don’t work many hours and I really do enjoy it. My job is one where you need to be able to get along with people and talk to people and I enjoy doing those things.”

While retiring used to mean playing leisurely rounds of golf or bridge and spending time with the grandkids, trends are beginning to show a different definition of the term. In fact, more than 47 percent of today’s retirees report they have worked or are planning to work during their retirement, according to a recent study called “Work in Retirement: Myths and Motivations,” commissioned by financial giant Merrill Lynch.

The study also stated that 72 percent of un-retired people aged 50 and beyond relayed a desire to keep working, even during traditional retirement years.

Harrington and Dovre pointed to the very real possibility that more seniors staying longer in the workforce could be taking opportunities from teenagers and other younger workers who typically might look for traditional summer jobs, retail and service jobs and other non-career path types of employment.

“When we talk about summer employment and those types of jobs, there certainly may be young people out there who are not getting a job because of the added competition,” Dovre said. “It’s just hard to get a good read on how those numbers stack up. That probably isn’t as big of a factor in South Dakota as it could be in other areas of the country.”

A more pressing problem in Aberdeen may be simply finding enough employees to round out the workforce. Strohfus, for one, isn’t convinced her employment is taking away from someone else.

“I don’t feel like I’m taking someone’s job at all,” she said. “There are enough jobs in Aberdeen. Plus, not everybody wants a job like I have. I think there is definitely something that us older workers bring to the table for employers and roles we fit into.”

Classified as those aged 65-plus, in 2012 South Dakota’s nearly 20,000 older workers made up 5.2 percent of the state’s overall workforce, according to the Department of Labor and Regulation. Projecting into the future, the South Dakota State University Rural Life and Census Data Center projects that older South Dakotans will account for a whopping 23.2 percent of the state’s population by 2035 (that number was 14.3 percent in 2010, according to Census numbers).

In the Aberdeen Micropolitan Statistical Area, about 5.8 percent of the workforce (1,163) is made up of older workers, according to the latest Census numbers. Most of the jobs occupied by those workers in South Dakota are in retail (17.4 percent), health care and social assistance (15 percent) and educational services (11.2 percent).

From the state’s perspective, recruiting more people to the workforce will be paramount to South Dakota’s economic future, as was evident by the emphasis put on the subject at the recent series of Governor’s Workforce Summit conferences around the state and the recent implementation of the Dakota Roots program, which is geared toward luring native South Dakotans back home to live and work.

“We’re actively trying to engage all demographics,” Dovre said. “One of those groups is older workers, and we think it’s a great opportunity for employers as well as those who may want to re-enter the workforce. We think there’s an opportunity here in South Dakota to engage with all kinds of different groups, including people with disabilities, Native Americans, stay-at-home parents and others. For employers, older workers have a lot to offer, and we encourage them to explore things like flexible scheduling that can accommodate those folks.”

Mike Salem, who owns both of the Aberdeen McDonald’s locations, said the two restaurants combined employ more than a dozen seniors who are a big part of his business.

“We’re talking about people who don’t miss work, are polite and get along great with others,” Salem said. “I’ve been with McDonald’s since I was 16, and we’ve always had older workers. Truthfully, I think we’d be in trouble without them.”

Like McBurney and Strohfus, fellow McDonald’s employee Vi Kost, 68, said she doesn’t have any immediate plans to trade her job for her favorite recliner.

“If you can keep on going, I think you have to keep on going,” Kost said. “I lost my husband in 2007 and having a job here has helped me stay busy and get out and about. It’s good for my overall health. Some people I work with here are as young as 15, and I really enjoy that. Plus, I’m getting paid.”