At 78, Mary Lou Kurtyka wants to keep working.

But she says she doesn't need the money. Instead, her job greeting customers and doing odd jobs at Applebee's in Grand Forks a few days a week helps keep her busy after she retired from her job in the receiving department at the UND Bookstore. And it keeps her in social settings four years after her husband, LeRoy, died.

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"I think I could make it without working, but I just like to be around people," she said.

Kurtyka is among a growing portion of older people in the U.S. workforce, a trend experts say is caused by shifting demographics, better longevity and some uncertainty over retirement and health care benefits. They also say it's a trend that requires employers' attention.

"Those of us in the baby boomer generation, we're aging, but we're aging better in many respects," said Janis Cheney, the director of the North Dakota branch of AARP. "In some cases, I think there are certainly some significant concerns from people who feel they can't afford to retire or need to work a little bit longer in order to have a secure retirement."

The portion of those ages 65 and older participating in the workforce has steadily grown over the past decade, from 14.2 percent in January 2005 to 19.1 percent in March of this year, according to federal data. Almost a third of workers in North Dakota are at least 50 years old, Cheney said.


The rate of older workers participating in the labor force has gradually increased since the 1990s, which suggests the trend doesn't have to do with the recent financial crisis, according to a 2010 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics article.

A shift from defined benefit to defined contribution retirement plans that has allowed "employers to shift more responsibility for retirement income to the employee" coincided with more older workers in the workforce, according to the BLS article authored by Emy Sok. Only 22 percent of large companies now offer a pension plan, down from 68 percent in 2004, according to AARP.

"Some of those of us in the baby boomer category are still going to have that kind of benefit, many of us are not, especially folks who have changed jobs over the years," Cheney said.

Rick Gessler, the employee/physician relations manager at Altru Health System, said health care costs could also be factoring into peoples' decision to work longer.

"Until they can get on Medicare, it's just too costly to get private coverage," Gessler said.

Still, some like Kurtyka simply want to keep busy in their later years. Gessler said some retirees have come back into positions like the front-door greeter.

"One of our employees, he came to me and said, 'Rick, I'm tired of babysitting my grandkids, I need to get back to work,'" Gessler said. He said about a fourth of Altru's roughly 4,200 employees are at least 50 years old.

Cheney added that older employees still have plenty to offer at the workplace thanks to better health later in life.

"Folks in their 60s and 70s and even sometimes their 80s have a lot more energy and initiative these days than perhaps they did," she said. "I look at myself and at my parents at my age, and we're much different people, we're operating in the world much differently."

Employer strategies

Twenty-five million baby boomers are expected to leave the workforce in large numbers by 2020. Still, a majority of companies surveyed in 2003 have made no special provisions for older workers, a National Technical Assistance Research Leadership Center report showed.

"This finding illustrates the lack of attention to the critical mass of workers whose impending retirement will dramatically affect business productivity and profits and points to the need to develop strategies that will encourage older workers to remain in the workforce," the 2012 report stated.

Jacquelyn James, co-director of the Center on Aging and Work at Boston College, said accommodating older employees with flexible schedules or different roles, as well as encouraging mentorship between older and younger workers are strategies that businesses could adapt.

Gessler added that some employees who aren't able to perform the physical tasks that come with nursing have switched to roles as "knowledge workers."

"There are a number of positions that require clinical knowledge without the physical strain," Gessler said.

Altru provides some generational diversity training for its workers "so that people can appreciate the differences between the generations," Gessler said.

"The millennial generation was reared so differently than many of us baby boomers," he said. "Baby boomers and millennials and (Generation X) get along really well. Oftentimes you see those mentoring relationships."