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Wednesday, February 20, 2013 - 9:00am

When A Bad Economy Means Working 'Forever'

Increasingly, people are continuing to work past 65. Almost a third of Americans between the ages of 65 and 70 are working, and among those older than 75, about 7 percent are still on the job. In Working Late, a series for Morning Edition, NPR profiles older adults who are still in the workforce.

Janet Sims-Wood is a 67-year-old librarian living near Washington, D.C., who, like millions of other seniors, has had to stay in the workforce past retirement age to make ends meet. Some haven't saved enough, or their jobs didn't pay enough for them to save for retirement. The recession also took a toll: Retirement savings lost $2.8 trillion.

About $100,000 of that came from Sims-Wood's savings, which is the reason she says she expects to stay in the workforce "forever."

Sims-Wood works part time in the library at Prince George's Community College in Maryland. When she began her career, working in a library was all about books. But here the rows of shiny computers seem to outnumber the stacks of dusty hardcovers. Sims-Wood is getting with the program.

"Sometimes the students know more than me, and they'll show me some stuff themselves. It's fun. I love learning new things," she says.

Sims-Wood has devoted her working life to learning and to students. She was the assistant chief librarian at Howard University in Washington, D.C., working in its center for African-American history. She was encouraged there to do her own independent research. And that became her passion.

"My area was African-American women's history mainly. I just got a chance to do a lot of things most of it on their dime," she says.

Sims-Wood's devotion to African-American history is one of the reasons she retired from Howard at 60. She wanted more time to conduct oral histories, to write and to speak. She also needed to help her siblings care for their mother, who lived in North Carolina. Then the recession hit. In addition to taking that $100,000 hit to her savings, her house lost value.

"It's underwater at this point. I owe more than what it's worth," she says. "This year I think I will at least start talking to a Realtor and see what we can do [so] that I can eventually get rid of it."

But selling at a loss won't provide the money for a down payment on a home in a retirement community as she'd hoped. Still, if you ask Sims-Wood about her financial troubles or about the death of her husband many years ago or her battle with breast cancer, she'll acknowledge that it's been hard sometimes but within a few seconds, she's smiling again.

"I'm also known as the 'faith lady.' I have faith that things will work out. I don't care how bad they are. It's going to work out," she says. "You just keep moving. You do not stop, because you can get depressed and go home and sit down, and the next thing you know you're gone. Stay positive. We have to stay positive."

When it comes to postponing retirement, Sims-Wood says she is more disappointed than miserable.

"I still enjoy being around people. People tell me I'm a people person, which I am," she says. "I wish I could do the oral history full time, but this gives me the funds to do it from time to time."

'Have A Plan'

Her optimism and perseverance seem to be part of her DNA. Her older sister, Mary Young, is also still working, at 79.

"I'm an educational psychologist and I'm employed by the Division of Corrections with their special education department. I work with 14- to 21-year-old inmates, male and female," Young says.

The Sims sisters grew up in a tiny segregated town in North Carolina. They both have Ph.D.s. Sims-Wood gives her older sister a lot of credit for pushing her to get an education.

"When we were growing up in the '60s, a lot of the kids were not going to college," says Sims-Wood. But her sister told their parents that they had to send Sims-Wood to college.

"She was the one who made sure that I got into college," Sims-Wood says.

Young married out of high school and raised two sons, so her education came in fits and starts over the years. She was Sims-Wood's inspiration.

"We were in college at the same time," says Sims-Wood. "She was doing better than I was in college with a family and working. She's very smart."

"I was very motivated to improve my life," Young says.

And through their work, the sisters say they want to help the next generation.

"One of the things we have to understand is that we're not always going to be in whatever position we are. You have to have a plan for whoever's coming after you," Sims-Wood says. "It helps you to really not focus on yourself, because there's still a lot to do. When I leave here it's going to still be a lot to do."

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