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Pressed into service

As the economy worsens, more retirees, parents, and others are taking on additional jobs

Tina Wells plays with her children, Devyn, 4, and Harry, 2, at home in Clinton. She has been unable to find sufficient work as a social worker, so she had to take a part-time restaurant job to help make ends meet. Tina Wells plays with her children, Devyn, 4, and Harry, 2, at home in Clinton. She has been unable to find sufficient work as a social worker, so she had to take a part-time restaurant job to help make ends meet. (Ellen Harasimowicz for the Boston Globe)
By Maggie Jackson
October 26, 2008
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Tina Wells is squeezed. Unable to find sufficient work in her field, the Clinton social worker and mother of two is now supplementing a five-hour-a-week consulting gig with weekend work as a restaurant hostess - a job she thought she'd left behind in graduate school. Her husband, Chris, is a project manager at a corporate audio-visual firm.

"Is it enough? Not really," says Wells. "I guess you could call it emergency management. It will keep us slightly ahead of the game."

Hit by the deepening economic crisis and fearful of what's to come, a growing number of Americans are taking on work - reluctantly. Young parents, retirees, and others who work part time or who have stepped away from jobs are wading back into the worst labor market in years to offset shrinking investments and rising prices. Others who'd like to cut back or stay home now can't afford to, so they unhappily work full time.

Their compromises undoubtedly will rewrite home and work lives, further redefining retirement and parenthood as life stages that include paid work and sapping family life of the luxury of time. It's just another way in which the fallout, both good and bad, from this crisis will unfold for years to come.

Joanne Brundage, executive director of the 6,000-member national advocacy group Mothers & More, is feeling the crunch. More volunteers and chapter leaders now do paid work compared with the past, reducing their ability to commit to the organization. "Volunteerism goes out the backdoor when situations like this come up," says Brundage.

To cope, Brundage now offers volunteers more finite, project-based work, rather than a role, such as marketing director, that demands an ongoing commitment. And Mothers & More is adjusting to a new reality in other ways: The group plans a job-oriented website where members can brush up on resume writing and other job hunting skills.

Lisa Ferrandino, a senior recruitment consultant at the online jobs site Monster.com, isn't job hunting. But she'd like to job share or stay home for a while in Upton with her three young children, and can't find a part-time position at work nor afford to quit. Her husband is a hospital medical technician who works nights so the couple can avoid day-care fees.

"Times are tough," says Ferrandino, who returned to work last month from a 12-week maternity leave. "If I didn't go back, it would be extremely tight. Now that I'm back, we have a little wiggle room."

More than the young, retirees and older workers are shaken by the country's 6.1 percent jobless rate, plummeting house values, and drooping retirement accounts. Fifty-six percent of workers age 45 and up surveyed last month by the AARP said they were finding it more difficult to pay for necessities like food and medicine. A fifth reported working longer to cope with rising costs, according to the advocacy group for people over age 55.

Reflecting this squeeze, unique monthly visitors to RetirementJobs.com, a Waltham-based career site for people over 50, doubled between July and September. "People are saying, 'I'm concerned about my nest egg, about my ability to continue to derive income from my work,' " says Tim Driver, chief executive.

Dick Hubbell, a South Dennis high-tech consultant, recently did an about-face on four years of retirement after seeing his tech-heavy portfolio slide, and growing bored with a life of golf, travel, and fixing up the house. At 72, he's now looking for an interim management job, and although he's willing to relocate, he's finding the job hunt slow going.

"I see a lot of guys who are desperate. I'm not in that situation," says Hubbell. "My financial plan is not living up to my billing."

Squeezed though many may be, there is good news in today's churning, discomfiting job market. Careers are more fluid and work is more flexible, for both younger and older workers. That means "on-ramping" back to work, even at 65 or 75, is more of a norm. Both for financial reasons and continued fulfillment, the number of workers age 65 grew 101 percent in the past three decades, compared with a 60 percent uptick in workers of all ages, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A lucky few, like 64-year-old Amadeus Leano, even get to "boomerang" back to their former employers. Last week, four months after he retired, Leano returned to his old job as a computer data mining consultant for Indianapolis-based health benefits provider WellPoint Inc. Anxieties about the economy and boredom with retirement inspired him to apply for the vacancy he'd left behind.

"It was a godsend," says Leano, who is based in Louisville, Ky. "It's going to be tighter down the road. That's not my idea of retirement, struggling to make ends meet."

For their part, his bosses were delighted to have him back. "He had exactly the skill set we needed," says Tariq Abu-Jaber, a Boston-based staff vice president of information management. "It's total serendipity. We now have a hiring freeze."

Maggie Jackson is the author of "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age" (Prometheus Books, 2008). She can be reached at www.maggie-jackson.com.

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