In pricy Southern California, some seniors can’t be retiring types

America’s population is getting really old, really fast, and all of that aging figures to touch every American’s wallet, young and old alike.

Public assistance programs could be strained. The economy could slow to a long-term crawl. Even consumption patterns might be changed. As the number of older people grows, their productivity – and their needs – will reshape pretty much all things financial.

As a practical matter, this could hit different people in different ways. Younger workers might be hard-pressed, both in possible tax hikes and the costs of long-term care for aging parents.

And older people might need to stay employed long after they once planned, if benefits are trimmed and the labor market seeks seasoned workers. Retirement? For everybody? The very idea might slip away.

But all of that is just a possible future. For a reality check, in the current time, talk with Rey Marroquin.

At 79, Marroquin has been in non-retirement for about 15 years, having left his last full-time job, in sales, at about the same time he divorced for a third time. But the small savings he had went away with his marriage and, as he hit his late 60s, he was part of the half of Americans who enter retirement with no savings beyond Social Security.

Ever since, he’s held a series of part-time jobs. Lately, that’s meant commuting four days a week from an apartment in Chino to a security job in Orange County.

The work, Marroquin said, isn’t bad. But it does mean a lot of walking on sidewalks and parking lots on legs that no longer love either.

If he could get by on Social Security, he said, he would. But in high-priced Southern California, he can’t.

“This is a tough place to be old.”

Numbers and humans

The money side of the aging boom boils down to humans, like Marroquin, and a lot of numbers.

“Everything in the economy could be affected, a lot or a little depending on what you’re looking at,” said Dowell Myers, a professor of urban planning and social change for the Sol Price School of Public Policy at USC who has written extensively about what might happen as America ages up.

More from this series

How an age shift in Southern California’s population could change everything
Aging boom: Active seniors not ready to retire quietly
Aging boom: Here’s a look at population trends in the U.S., California by 2060
As Southern Californians grow old, housing will be scarce; solutions, pitfalls are already here
Home sharing, backyard cottages and renting out rooms help seniors find housing

We will have more stories soon on Southern California’s Aging Boom. If you have subjects you think we should explore, please contact our projects and topics editor, Andre Mouchard, at amouchard@scng.com

“The irony is that while we talk about how aging will affect the economy, the actual answer to most of the potential problems is that we should be investing more in education for young people,” Myers added.

“If nothing else, we older people will want younger people to be better workers,” he said, laughing. “So they can pay more taxes.”

Myers’ joke about young people and taxes hits the most fundamental question about the aging boom and money:

With the pool of retirement-age Americans growing at a breakneck pace (the number of people 65 and older will jump from 57 million today to about 95 million in 2060), and the pool of working-age adults (the group that pays the most taxes) barely growing at all, will our collective needs outstrip our ability to pay for them?

Recent studies suggest Social Security and Medicare – two programs that keep tens of millions of Americans out of abject poverty – are shaky but not broken.

On the shaky side, Social Security could see shortfalls starting as soon as 2035, assuming no changes are made to either benefits or payroll tax rates, according to the Social Security Administration’s 2022 Trustees Report.

But the same report shows Social Security with a $2.9 trillion trust fund. Also, the program’s projected shortfall over the next 75 years is equal to just 1.1% of the gross domestic product, not an insurmountable hurdle.

The report concludes by saying any currently projected gaps for Social Security and Medicare are fixable.

“Lawmakers have many policy options that would reduce or eliminate the long-term financing shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare,” wrote the Trustees, a group that includes Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

What the report leaves out is that those “many policy options” will be chosen by elected politicians during a time when the fastest-growing segment of their electorate will be beneficiaries of those same programs. The pressure to keep Social Security and Medicare robust, or at least healthy, could be powerful.

Another age-related fact that could touch every wallet is this: The same trend that might squeeze Social Security and Medicare will make those programs a bigger and more influential part of the overall economy.

Over the next two decades, the combined spending on those two programs will grow, jumping from 8.7% of the gross domestic product today to 11.8% by 2050, according to the trustee report. If that plays out, the results could be mixed. It might mean higher taxes or less money for things taxpayers like, such as education and defense spending. But it also might mean more juice for the economy, overall, as retirees tend to spend, not save, the money they get from the government.

But the coming aging boom also could create economic issues that go beyond big-ticket government programs.

More older people means fewer babies. And, experts say, a long-term decline in population growth also figures to mean a long-term slowdown in the economy. If that plays out, the result won’t just be dry numbers on some government website; it could mean fewer raises and less economic opportunity for a generation or two of future American workers.

But as tough as some of the numbers are, the other side of the story about economics and aging – the human side – might be more urgent.

In recent decades, the U.S. economy has been marked by stagnant wages, fewer private pensions and a yawning gap between rich and poor. Now, those factors are starting to reshape our ideas about – or, in many cases, our access to – retirement.

That’s particularly true in high-cost places like Southern California.

Census data shows the region of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties is getting older faster than almost any other part of the country, and that the trend could last for decades. At the same time, the local cost of everything from housing to gas to food is expected to remain as it is today, among the nation’s highest.

For people of retirement age – but not of retirement means – that combination is less than ideal.

“I don’t blame no one,” said 79-year-old security guard Marroquin, as he stood in the shade to keep his eyes on a parking lot in Tustin.

“But I do wish it was easier to get by.”

Non-retiring types

One quirk of the aging boom is this census projection: By 2034, America’s population will have more people of retirement age than it will have children.

Which isn’t to say we’ll actually have more retirees.

Though most Americans still want to give up full-time work, generally at some point in their 60s according to polling on that exact question, those plans increasingly aren’t becoming reality. Instead, the number of people working after hitting birthdays previously viewed as prime retirement time is spiking.

In fact, even when accounting for an extra 1.7 million retirements that started during the COVID-19 pandemic, everybody older than 60 today is more likely to be working than people of the same age were 20 years ago, according to Gallup’s annual Economy and Personal Finance survey.

And all of that non-retirement is expected to continue.

Today, about 1 in 4 American workers is 54 or older, a figure that could grow a lot in the next few years. A study from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Retirement Equity Lab at the New School in New York predicts the U.S. economy will get about 6 million new jobs between now and 2029, and that 4.4 million of those positions will be filled by people age 55 and older. The fastest-growing segment of that future labor pool is expected to be people 65 and up.

Those workers figure to be a lot like Marroquin. In many ways, he personifies the future-aged workforce.

For one thing, he’s an immigrant, having arrived in Texas from Guatemala in the early 1970s – and older immigrants soon will be more common than they are today. Starting in 2030, the oldest millennials (44% of whom are non-White) will start to supplant baby boomers (only 24% non-White) within the senior population.

Marroquin’s status as a divorcee also is increasingly common. Experts say the current crop of people heading into retirement are much more likely to be divorced, or living single, than their older peers.

But the biggest reason Marroquin represents the future is this: His Social Security check simply doesn’t cover the basics. Because he reached retirement age without a pension or significant savings (he spent much of his early career in sales and says, “I made pretty good money a lot of years”) Marroquin still needs some kind of paycheck.

A census report from earlier this year found that about 50% of all women ages 55-66, and 47% of all men of the same age, currently have no retirement. That isn’t likely to change significantly when those people hit their 70s and 80s.

“I just don’t want to work forever, OK?” Marroquin says, laughing but not smiling as he stares at a Tustin parking lot. “That’s it. That’s all I want.”

Toni Scott, 76, takes part in a one-hour aerobics class with other seniors at GenSpace in Los Angeles onTuesday, October 4, 2022. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Another version of retirement during the aging boom is Toni Scott.

At 76, Scott, who lives near Koreatown in Los Angeles, isn’t wealthy. She worked in several careers as a younger woman, spending the last 15 years of her working life as a special education assistant for the Los Angeles Unified School District. None of her jobs, she said, was particularly high paying.

But Scott says she always “saved and lived simply.” And because of that, she says she now “gets by well enough” on a small pension and Social Security.

The result is that she’s not part of the aging workforce. Instead, she spends time singing with the gospel choir at the First AME Church in Los Angeles (she’s an alto), making jewelry, and taking classes at GenSpace, a recently opened health and wellness center for older people in Koreatown.

“Retirement, for me, has been about reinvention,” Scott said. “It’s freed me up to be who I always wanted to be.”

Employee Dave Kramp stocks light bulbs at the Crown Ace Hardware in Huntington Beach.Crown Ace Hardware joined the AARP Employer Pledge Program and is committed to looking for experienced workers as part of its age-inclusive workforce. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Employee Dave Kramp at the Crown Ace Hardware in Huntington Beach. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Employee Dave Kramp helps a customer at Crown Ace Hardware in Huntington Beach. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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Maybe falling somewhere between Marroquin and Scott, are the older, part-time workers who help run the Crown Ace Hardware store on Adams Avenue in Huntington Beach.

Currently, seven of the store’s 22 employees are in their 60s or older. When hiring, store manager David Sewell, 55, specifically seeks out at least some older workers, saying they are a key to his company’s “service first” strategy.

As part of that outreach, Sewell gets applications from former “financial types, people who ran their own companies, contractors; basically, all kinds of older people from all walks of life.”

“For some, it’s probably an important supplement to their income,” he said. “But they can only make so much money. A lot of them just love to work.”

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The good? Sewell says his older employees “have an ingrained work ethic; when they get to work, they start working.”

The not-so-good? Retail work can be physical, with lifting or moving heavy objects part of the daily routine. Not every older worker is able to handle it.

“I can’t run the store with 20 70-year-olds,” Sewell said. “But I can’t run the story with 20 30-year-olds either. For us, it’s got to be a mix. And older people are critical to that.

“I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”

Tiffin Roley, left, and Peri Perry, install pictures for the “Wisdom Series,” featuring members at the new senior GenSpace facility in Los Angeles on Tuesday, October 4, 2022. The project paired seniors with photo students who took portraits and interviewed the older adults. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)