Can’t afford to retire, can’t find a job

Growing numbers of elderly Californians still have to work

Emma Allen, 71, is a receptionist as part of a job training program for low-income seniors, but wants to work full-time.

Emma Allen, 71, is a receptionist as part of a job training program for low-income seniors, but wants to work full-time.

Sean Havey for California Dream

These stories are part of The California Dream project, a statewide nonprofit media collaboration focused on issues of economic opportunity, quality of life and the future of the California Dream. Partner organizations include CALmatters, Capital Public Radio, KPBS, KPCC, and KQED with support provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation. Unabridged versions of these stories are available at

More Californians are working past the age of 65, many because they can’t afford to retire. But the seniors who most need a job often have the hardest time finding one.

“For low-wage workers, you pretty much hit a wall,” said Nari Rhee, director of the Retirement Security Program at the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

Blue collar workers can only keep a physically demanding job for so long. Age discrimination can lock seniors out of new opportunities. For many, it all adds up to a kind of forced retirement.

“Even if you want to work, you really can’t,” Rhee said. “The people who are working well into their late 60s and possibly into their early 70s tend to be in professional jobs.”

But financial necessity drives thousands to keep looking for work. According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 900,000 Californians age 65 and older are working or actively looking for work. That’s up from about 590,000 in 2009.

Emma Allen, 71, is one of them. She’s been job hunting for years. While searching for a permanent position, she’s been participating in a job training program for low-income seniors through the city of Los Angeles.

She works the front desk at a senior center in South Los Angeles, where she’s been picking up new skills and earning a modest paycheck. She has the kind of warm smile needed to be a good receptionist. “I’m the first one they see when they come in the door,” Allen said. “Whatever they need help with, I know where to direct them.”

Answering the phone is a big part of her day. One recent morning, a caller wanted to know what was on the menu for lunch. But it was pretty clear lunch wasn’t why he actually called. Allen took some time out of her day to catch up with him.

These kinds of calls are typical. “Some just want to call and talk,” Allen said. “And that’s uplifting—that you make a difference for someone who just needs to hear a voice.”

Allen has been at the center more than four years. She said the people there are now like family. “You come in and sometimes you’re not feeling well. But then the first person through the door will have a big smile on their face, and say, ‘Good morning, Emma,’ and that whole gloom just goes away,” Allen said.

This program aims to give low-income seniors a better chance of re-entering the workforce. But it is not intended to become a permanent job. Allen’s time is almost up. She’ll have to leave in May.

“It’s very rewarding,” she said. “I’m going to miss it.”

Most participants exit the program without having found a job. Laura Trejo, general manager of the city of Los Angeles Department of Aging, said that despite old workers’ reliability, experience and good work ethic, the deck is often stacked against them.

A lot of ageism

“We still live in a society that has a lot of ageism,” Trejo said. “People judge somebody maybe by their wrinkles and the gray in their hair, and not necessarily by what they can contribute to the workplace.”

Last year, Los Angeles saw a 22% spike in the number of homeless seniors 62 and older. Trejo thinks that persuading more employers to hire seniors could be one way to reverse that trend.

“We’re seeing lots of high-risk older adults, because of the economics in Los Angeles,” she said.

Seniors are paying high rents, and their fixed incomes aren’t keeping up with the escalating cost of living. “All of us should be worried. All of us should be paying attention and caring,” Trejo said.

Allen needs a new job because Social Security isn’t enough to live on. After paying her rent, she only has a few hundred dollars to budget for food, utilities, car insurance and other expenses.

Like many seniors, she has no savings. They were depleted by medical bills toward the end of her husband’s life. According to a 2015 report from the National Institute on Retirement Security, nearly 30% of working households aged 55 to 64 are headed into their retirement years with zero savings.

“I don’t have a choice,” Allen said. “I need the income.”

Racial wealth gap worsens

The Great Recession only made things worse for many Californians nearing retirement, especially black and Latino seniors. The racial wealth gap widened during the financial crisis. A decade later, U.S. black and Mexican households in Los Angeles have only 1% of the wealth held by white households, according to a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

Rhee, from the UC Berkeley Labor Center, has seen the lingering effects of the recession push her mother back into the workforce. Her mom lost her home during the financial crisis. Now in her early 70s, she works a few days a week at a Costco.

“She’ll say, ’I enjoy working,’” Rhee said, because the job offers social connection and keeps her mother’s mind active. “But the primary reason she’s there is that she needs the income.”

Older women can’t rely as much on Social Security. Their benefits tend to be lower, because they were paid less than men throughout their careers. “Single women tend to have it the worst off,” said Rhee. “California really needs to confront the fact that we have an aging population, and what that’s going to mean for things like senior poverty, the need for housing and supportive services.”

Working is nothing new for Allen. She started working at 15 and hasn’t stopped since. She’s been a probation officer, a special education teacher’s aide, a meat packing plant worker, and, now, she’s open to pretty much anything.

“I’m a people person,” she said. “Anything to do with people.”

Allen has had to be constantly looking for a job in order to stay in her job training program. Her search is documented in a thick manila folder. Every place she’s applied to has its own entry.

“I went to J.C. Penney, I went to Big Lots,” she said, flipping through a large stack of paperwork. “Jack in the Box, Target …”

Many employers tell her to apply online, but Allen’s computer skills are limited. Her kids help out with those applications. But so far, no luck.

No one has ever outright told her she’s too old to get hired. But Allen thinks age discrimination is part of why she’s not getting called back.

“I could feel it, you could tell,” Allen said. “Half the time they don’t even look at the application. They just look at me. They see that I’m older, and I guess they figure I can’t keep up or whatever.”

Thumbing through her job search folder, Allen said she felt tired. “Because out of all this, somewhere there should’ve been something,” she said. “I’m running out of places. I don’t know where else to go.”

If she doesn’t find a job, she’ll have to move in with one of her kids. But she doesn’t want to be a burden. And she wants to keep working.

“It’s part of making me feel that I’m worth something,” she said. “I’m contributing something. I’m not just sitting on my hands waiting for somebody to give me something. Maybe somewhere down the line somebody might see that.”