SARITA GUPTA: We are hitting a moment where the elder boom, it’s not a trend. It’s actually a whole new way of life for our country.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT: FUTURE OF AGING
NARRATION: Robert Fulton is 64 years old.
ROBERT FULTON (GETTING READY TO SHAVE): C’mon water warm-up.
NARRATION: And instead of preparing for a retirement shuttling his RV between vacation spots, he drove his rig to North Dakota for a new job harvesting beets and corn.
ROBERT FULTON: This job isn’t just sitting in the truck. It can be very physical at times. And you just keep up the best way you can.
NARRATION: After arthritis forced him out of his job as a union lineman and the 2008 recession cost him his house, Robert sold off most of his stuff and got a loan for an RV. For the last five years he’s lived on the road chasing seasonal work until his pension kicks in.
Robert and other workers like him are upending old ideas about retirement and giving us a window into the future of aging at a time when the world is about to get a whole lot older. Life spans are increasing, birth rates are going down, and by 2050, the global population of people older than 65 will more than double.
JAY GUDAJTES (CO-OWNER, GUDAJTES FAMILY FARM): There’s a whole bunch of these guys. And we’ve maybe tapped a new market.
MARC FREEDMAN (PRESIDENT AND CEO, ENCORE.ORG): Already millions of people are crossing into a period that used to be retirement, but they’re not retiring. They’re working longer, in many cases, because they want to, but in many cases, because they have to.
NARRATION: Which means that reaching your 60s in the 21st century may look vastly different from this:
ARCHIVAL (PROMOTIONAL FILM FOR SUN CITY, ARIZONA):
NARRATOR: When I retired, my first project was to do absolutely nothing. This is the life.
NARRATION: Although, it was never a reality for all workers, the mid-20th century American model of a generous retirement underwritten by government and corporate pensions, is becoming a vestige of the past.
Some economists say we’re starting to see the fall-out from changes made in the 1980s, when pensions started giving way to 401Ks, which are less secure and more prone to the highs and lows of the stock market. And more and more people are relying on social security to help fund their retirement.
TERESA GHILARDUCCI (ECONOMIST, THE NEW SCHOOL FOR SOCIAL RESEARCH): So anybody now who’s living a middle-class life face a very high risk of being poor when they’re retired, and that’s new.
NARRATION: One study projects that 40 percent of older middle-class workers will have incomes below or near the poverty level when they retire. And researchers have found that the percentage of people filing for bankruptcy who are over 65 has increased five-fold since 1991.
TERESA GHILARDUCCI: This is a situation that the Boomers’ parents and grandparents did not face. This is a real reversal of what it means to age in American society.
JESSICA BRUDER (AUTHOR, “NOMADLAND”): Growing numbers of older Americans are facing harder and harder choices.
NARRATION: It’s the sort of story that Jessica Bruder routinely heard while researching her book “Nomadland.” She followed a growing cohort of nomadic seniors who are mostly white, largely male, but with increasing numbers of women. And these nomads have found an extreme solution to dwindling retirement savings and the rising cost of housing and health care.
JESSICA BRUDER: I met people who had lost their small businesses. People who had also lost their homes; people who had lost all their savings in the 2008 collapse; people who were never able to put enough away because they were stuck on a low wage treadmill.
ELLEN WHEELER: I couldn’t afford an apartment on my Social Security. It couldn’t happen.
ELLEN WHEELER (TALKING TO HER DOG): You can come out here and eat if you want. C’mon.
ELLEN WHEELER: I’d rather have my little van, with my little space, my dog, and the desert, and I’m perfectly happy with that.
BOB WELLS: I’m seeing my role as moving away from the man who does it and to the facilitator that puts you together. And that’s what I’m trying to do.
NARRATION: Bob Wells created an annual gathering for the nomadic workers and has become a bit of a guru for people looking to live off fixed incomes in vans and RVs.
BOB WELLS (FOUNDER, CHEAPRVLIVING.COM: There just really aren’t any good options, but the one everyone hopes for is low-income or senior housing. And yet, the waiting list for those is typically very, very long, years and years. And so, I had found a solution. And I felt like I had an obligation to tell people there was a solution
ARCHIVAL (CHEAPRVLIVING YOUTUBE CHANNEL):
BOB WELLS: Hey folks welcome back to our next video. This is going to be a series of ten jobs for nomads.
JESSICA BRUDER: I think it’s important to learn from this group because these people are facing financial issues that will be impacting everybody. Becoming nomadic is just one hack that people are using.
CINDY MORGAN (GIVING A TOUR OF HER VAN): I designed this so that I would have a stove in here. I do have running water. The whole build and van and everything so far has been right around $3,000 dollars.
NARRATION: If the going’s getting harder for more of today’s retirees, prospects may be even worse for younger workers who face the twin challenges of paying for a longer lifespan while working jobs with fewer guaranteed benefits.
TERESA GHILARDUCCI: If the near future of aging is filled with a lot of middle-class workers becoming poor elders, then the future of aging for Millennials is going to be even worse.
JESSICA BRUDER: So I think now the new reality is a lot of people I know expect to work until they die. Which is hard because bodies give out.
NARRATION: If people are going to be working for more years, that’s going to mean finding jobs they can actually get.
AI-JEN POO (AUTHOR, “THE AGE OF DIGNITY”): Our economy is still set up for a younger workforce, so a lot of people as they age are facing ageism in their workplaces.
JEAN EISENHOWER: I grew up to ‘don’t trust anyone over 30.’ We’ve all been trained to discriminate against our elders. I mean, since I was a child I remember all the images of elder people were making fun of them.
NARRATION: And prospects aren’t always great in the sectors that are looking to hire. Home health-aide and personal care jobs, for example, they’re hard to automate, and the elder boom means demand for this kind of work is rising fast. But these jobs have low wages and few benefits.
AI-JEN POO: A lot of people ask me, you know, “Are robots going to take care of Grandma?” And I just don’t see it happening anytime soon.
SARITA GUPTA (CO-DIRECTOR, CARING ACROSS GENERATIONS): These jobs have historically been low wage, poverty wage jobs, predominantly women, a majority of whom are women of color and immigrants. So they’ve been extremely undervalued. So now is the time for us to actually invest in this workforce. Care jobs are jobs of the future, we have a tremendous opportunity to reimagine what these jobs are.
NARRATION: Transforming the workplace looks to be even more necessary as many healthy people want to find a way to stay productive – especially during the nearly 20 years we’ve added to our lifespans since the 1930s.
ROBERT FULTON: When I used to think 65 and 70 was old, now I’m in that group. And it doesn’t seem as old as I had thought. This age is a lot better than I was expecting.
AI-JEN POO: The idea that 65 would be sort of the end of your career and the sort of end of your work life just seems ridiculous at this point. Both from an economic standpoint and from a cultural and human standpoint. People want to contribute for as long as possible.
NARRATION: And some students of this change believe redefining what it means to be in your 60s, could mean the invention of an entirely new stage of life.
MARC FREEDMAN: Adolescence was a creation of the beginning of the last century when we had a proliferation of young people who weren’t children, they weren’t adults. And so, we created a new stage of life. Took 50 years ‘til the word teenager even caught on. And I think the same thing is happening today in that period that used to be occupied by retirement. It doesn’t have a name. But, in, in fact, it’s a new part of the life cycle.
AI-JEN POO: Our cultural disposition towards aging is fear and denial. People growing older is not a crisis. It’s a blessing. And we forget that to age is to live.
NARRATION: With studies predicting that babies born this century will increasingly live for a 100 years, significant hurdles will need to be overcome. And it’s not only jobs that will need to be rethought.
AI-JEN POO: This is a permanent reality, so it means that we have to redesign our housing, our infrastructure, our economy to actually support people to live an average of 20 years longer than when most of our systems were put into place.
MARC FREEDMAN: Will we end up being able to make the adjustments that will turn the aging society into the aging opportunity? And right now, I think that the answer to that question is an open one.