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This is Cindy and Clint Bentley’s third season as Workampers. It isn’t quite what they thought retirement would look like. They live within their 240 square foot RV for 5 or 6 months out of the year at a campground outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. They manage two camp sites – the work involves greeting campers, cleaning the grounds and bathrooms – and for Clint, hauling water to camp sites and pumping waste from the bathrooms. “That’s not the fun part of the job,” adds Cindy.
Clint is 67, Cindy is 53. Both say this isn’t what they thought retirement would look like. “This is not anything that we obviously planned for – we just had never even thought about it,” said Clint Bentley. “We thought the business was going to keep going and didn’t think we were going to be retired at this stage,” said Cindy Bentley.
The Bentley’s had a construction business in Las Vegas. After the crash in 2008, business dried up. They held on for another three years, which they say in retrospect, was a mistake. “In doing so, we consumed the money we had set aside for retirement and finally, there was no more left,” said Clint. Now they survive on social security and the money they make as Workampers.
They are part of a national circuit of Workampers that extends coast to coast and up through Canada. It’s a unique labor market: retirees answer ads that hundreds of employers post on websites like “Workamper News” and “Workers on Wheels”. Traveling by RV, they do a range of work: picking raspberries, selling Christmas Trees, working at Amazon and UPS during the holiday rush, and welcoming tourists at attractions like Dollywood. For Workampers like Cindy and Clint, the pay isn’t much, but there are perks.
“You get minimum wage plus… you get electricity, you get water, you get utilities,” says Warren Meyer, President of Recreation Resource Management. He manages 110 campsites in parks across the country – and employs more than 300 Workampers.
Meyer says demand for these jobs has gone through the roof since the recession hit. “We find since 2008 there’s a lot more people looking for us. In fact I have a list of people interested in hearing about jobs – I had to cap the list at 25,000 names,” he said. “Most folks are couples so that’s really probably like 50,000 people who are applying for 50 jobs I have. In 2008 I used to have to go to these conventions of retirees and try and beg people to work for me.”
Workampers are part of a growing trend in the U.S. -- retirement-age Americans forced to work longer because of the recession. Almost 9 million workers ages 65 or older are in the labor force, either actively working or seeking work. As more boomers hit retirement that number is expected to increase by 62 percent to more than 13 million by 2022.
“The new normal is working longer,” said Monique Morrissey, Economist for the Economic Policy Institute. “Labor force participation rate of workers for 65 and older is the highest it's been in half a century – that’s as far as the records go – it could be longer than that.”
“I think the new normal for retirement – for the majority of people in my age bracket -- has changed actually dramatically from what 15 years prior to this,” said Clint Bentley.
“The new normal is working longer”
Monique Morrissey, Economic Policy Institute
And it has. Morrissey says the decline in Boomers’ net worth compared to earlier generations is “astounding.” She cites the median household entering into retirement in 2007 (the War Babies) worth $315,000. But older Boomers are faring much worse, having saved up only $176,000 – representing a nearly 45% decline.
Morrissey says that’s because Boomers had accumulated less than previous generations before the housing bubble burst – but the 2008 downturn and recession hit Boomers at the worst possible time – what should have been their peak earnings and savings years. During the Great Recession, 401K’s and IRAs lost 2.8 trillion dollars in the span of two years. Those almost ready to retire, between ages 55 to 64, got hit the hardest losing a trillion dollars.
“40% of near retirees, people in the 55 to 64 age range, have nothing at all saved in accounts for retirement,” said Morrissey. “And about 10% have very little - not even enough to buy a car.”
Today, only 57% of Boomers have savings in retirement accounts, bringing their median retirement account balance to just $15,000 dollars.
“I think the new normal for retirement – for the majority of people in my age bracket -- has changed actually dramatically from what 15 years prior to this.”
Clint Bentley, 67 yrs
What does this mean for many of the Workampers who are retirement age? They have to work. If not fully to survive then at least to subsidize their retirement.
But for many Workampers spending their retirement in their RV and working isn’t a story of desperation. It’s one of making the best of their situation, and enjoying their retirement to the absolute fullest.
“The most important thing is both of us have good health and as long as we have good health we’re as wealthy as we can be. That’s still the bottom line,” said Clint Bentley. Cindy looks at her husband and nods, “That’s true.”
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