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Older workers carry on, even when life itself is life-threatening

Americans are living longer, with average life expectancy in the U.S. rising from age 71 in 1970 to age 79 last year, leading many to stay employed far past retirement age. Paul Solman reports on some of the oldest workers of all, and the lessons they can share, as part of our series, “Unfinished Business."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Throughout this past year, Paul Solman has captured some of the distinct challenges older Americans face in the work force and what still motivates them.

    Tonight, he finishes that series with a look at the oldest workers among us, those who are 80 and above.

    It's the last in our older worker series, Unfinished Business.

    The series was produced by Diane Lincoln Estes.

  • Paul Solman:

    "Take My Nose, Please," about comedians undergoing plastic surgery, debuted when the film's first-time producer, Joan Kron, was 89.

  • Joan Kron:

    Everybody just laughed. They patted me on the head. Joan is in her 80s and she's making her first movie. I just was proud of being able to accomplish something at that age that people didn't expect it. And they still don't expect it.

  • Paul Solman:

    Didn't expect "Take My Nose," her first film, didn't expect her next film about Botox at almost 93.

  • Joan Kron:

    Luckily, I don't have anything that's that's life-threatening at the moment. I suppose just my age is life-threatening.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    Life itself is life-threatening?

  • Joan Kron:

    If I just dwell on that, that — you know, that's a waste of time.

  • Paul Solman:

    Now, it's well-known that most Americans are living longer. As of last year, average U.S. life expectancy was up to 79, from 71 in 1970, 53 in 1920. No wonder many so-called older workers are still at it, says researcher Nari Rhee.

  • Nari Rhee:

    We have seen a steady increase in the share of older adults who are still working. Before the pandemic, about 13 percent of seniors aged 70 and older were working.

  • Paul Solman:

    Joan Kron created the plastic surgery beat at "Allure" magazine in her 60s and maintained it for 25 years, had a face-lift early on.

  • Joan Kron:

    Because there's so much discrimination against the way that you look if you're old. If you look like somebody's grandmother, they really don't want you around.

  • Paul Solman:

    But if you work long enough…

  • Joan Kron:

    Now they kind of think I'm kind of cute. I'm a cute little old lady.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    Kron's still going because she loves her work. But she doesn't mind the financial benefits either.

  • Nicole Maestas:

    The longer people work, they contribute additionally to their Social Security benefits.

  • Paul Solman:

    And working longer isn't just an economic benefit for the individual, says economist Nicole Maestas.

  • Nicole Maestas:

    There is more capacity to work than is currently being tapped by the U.S. labor market. As older workers who are very experienced and knowledgeable retire from the labor force, we lose that productive capacity, at a time when we actually need more productive capacity, given the demographics in the country.

  • Paul Solman:

    Virtual lessons are new, but 80-year-old Cecilia Wyatt has been teaching piano for 62 years.

  • Cecilia Wyatt:

    Retirement never comes into my mind. I love music. I love people. And I love teaching. It comes very naturally.

  • Paul Solman:

    If you love what you do, it's obviously easy to play on. But Wyatt believes work keeps you sharp.

  • Cecilia Wyatt:

    There is such a cerebral part of music. Especially if you are making music or teaching music, you're always thinking, you're always counting, you're always thinking about relationships. That keeps the mind going.

    But the inner joy of music-making, I think, is exactly at the heart of what keeps us alive and going.

  • Paul Solman:

    But not just in music. Working longer in general can be good be salutary, says Professor Maestas.

  • Nicole Maestas:

    Having purpose, from having social engagements, interactions in the workplace. There's even research that shows people who have particular kinds of work tasks that involve creativity, have variation, that they derive cognitive benefits.

  • Paul Solman:

    Most in pianist Wyatt's circle have not continued on the job.

  • Cecilia Wyatt:

    They have worked in jobs where retirement was most likely mandatory, and I think it's made a difference in their lives, and it's not for the better.

  • Paul Solman:

    How has it been for the worse?

  • Cecilia Wyatt:

    I know people who feel depressed. I think working is such a part of a functioning adult, a productive adult. So I think, when that's taken away, suddenly, you feel a bit useless.

  • Paul Solman:

    Financial analyst May Lee began working for the state of California in 1943.

    What technology did you start with when you were working with numbers.

  • May Leet:

    The old Chinese abacus.

  • Paul Solman:

    An abacus?

  • May Lee:

    Yes. And then from there, I went to the comptometer, the 10-key adding machine, the calculators. And then we went into computer.

  • Paul Solman:

    Lee, now 100, officially retired in 1991, when her pension became higher than her salary, but she returned soon after. She's paid part-time, but as volunteered some 31,000 additional hours.

  • May Lee:

    I enjoy working. And, sometimes, I just do algebra equation, trying to figure out what's the best.

  • Paul Solman:

    You do algebra problems at home for fun?

  • May Lee:

    Yes, just for fun.

  • Paul Solman:

    And so the lessons? Pick long-lived parents, do what you love, take on challenges.

    But remember, says Professor Maestas, that may be impossible for most of us.

  • Nicole Maestas:

    Not everybody is healthy enough to work longer, and not everybody can work longer, and not everyone likes their job enough where we would say, really, you should work longer.

  • Paul Solman:

    But for those, like producer Joan Kron, who have the knack and the drive?

  • Joan Kron:

    There are so many benefits that I have from age. And that's wisdom, connections, a very good memory. And because I'm a widow, I don't have a husband that says, stop working, dear. Let's go away for the weekend.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    Moreover, says May Lee, you appreciate what really matters.

  • May Lee:

    If you made people happy, you're happy. Volunteer to do something good. Money isn't everything. Happiness is more important.

  • Paul Solman:

    Whether you find it in doing equations or tickling the ivories.

  • Cecilia Wyatt:

    My own children say, "Mom, you have never worked."

    Well, that's true. I have never missed a year of teaching, but I don't consider that work. It's play. It's pleasure.

  • Paul Solman:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," this is older worker Paul Solman, younger than Cecilia Wyatt, born the year after May Lee started her job.

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