Letter carrier, 72, among growing number in U.S. working well past 65
By Tom Moroney, Washington Post, August 30, 2013
He’s on County Road 1680 moving like a blacktailed jack rabbit under the big-bowl Oklahoma sky, a tiny dot in his Ford Ranger out on the edge of the world when the flying red stinger ants show up.
Other on-the-job nuisances include hail, mud, diamondback rattlers, wild boars, coyotes, bobcats, porcupines and skunks. Jim Ed Bull keeps on driving.
Fifty, 55, 60 mph. Turning up a driveway, he reaches out the window and, snap, the mailbox opens. Bull is a letter carrier with the longest postal route in the United States, 187.6 miles across some of the loneliest territory in the country. He’s 72 and part of the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. labor force—those who work past their 65th birthdays.
Into the mailbox goes the weekly Southwest Oklahoma Shopper and a letter from Stockmans Bank, and, slam, the door shuts tight. Snap-and-slam wasn’t always the soundtrack of Bull’s workday. He was a high school principal, coach and referee who retired in the late ’90s only to come back to a payroll. Now he’s one of 7.2 million Americans who were 65 or older and employed last year, a 67 percent jump from 10 years before.
They work longer hours and earn more than they did a decade ago. Fifty-eight percent are full-time, compared with 52 percent in 2002, and their median weekly pay has gone up to $825 from $502. In the second quarter, government data show, Bull and his peers made $49 more a week than all workers 16 and older.
Retirement is rarely the discrete here’s-your-gold-watch event it once was. With pensions ever more scarce, millions face perpetual employment.
"It’s becoming the norm," says Kevin Cahill, research economist at Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging and Work.
Reasons for staying in the workforce cover the spectrum in the post-recession economy. Some need the money to live day to day. Some want to build up battered 401(k) plans or put more away for the kids. Some find that the daily activity organizes their lives, keeping them connected and useful.
For Bull, who has a pension and Social Security and a $62,000 annual salary, it’s mostly about family. With what his wife, Susan, a second-grade teacher, makes, they earn six figures. He says his working helps them maintain a comfortable lifestyle and allows him to save to leave something substantial for Susan, who’s 17 years his junior, and his grandchildren.
Eddie Beard, 75, is a fellow rural letter carrier whose route is a mere 147 miles. A Church of Christ preacher, he came to the U.S. Postal Service 18 years ago for the retirement plan “because the clergy doesn’t have one.”
Lawyer Mike Henry, 73, a customer on Bull’s route, still goes to the office because he declared bankruptcy in 1987 after losing his Texas real estate investments when crude oil prices plunged. “I need the money,” Henry says. He figures he’ll work “until I die.”
Like Bull and Beard, he harbors no resentment. “It keeps me alive and alert, and it gives me something to do where I can help folks,” says Henry, who estimates half his legal work these days is pro bono. “If I won the lottery, I wouldn’t quit.”
With military veterans and retirees from first jobs in the mix, the Postal Service abounds with gray hairs. Of 615,360 employees, agency data show, 46 percent are over 50. Five thousand postal employees are 70 or older, and 695 of those are Bull’s age, 72. Another 223 are over 80.
Bull’s improbable run stretches across the southern reaches of the Great Plains through and around the tiny towns of Duke and Eldorado, where the emptiness makes the stars, the moon, the edge of a riverbed appear larger than life.
The land moves north from the Red River, quiet and flat, its dusky iron-rich earth cracked and blistered by two years of drought. Wells dried up and wheat folded over and died.
Farmers recall with some anxiety stories from their parents about the 1930s Dust Bowl, when the sky turned black. John Steinbeck found his characters here for “The Grapes of Wrath”—left with nothing, “hungry and restless, restless as ants.”
The county where Bull picks up his mail, Greer, and where he mostly delivers, Jackson, remain fiery red on the U.S. Drought Monitor map—each of them 4 on a scale of 5.
"There wasn’t much good that’s come out of there this year or the last four or five," says Mike Schulte, who heads the Oklahoma Wheat Commission, a state agency. "You’ve just got to be a really strong person to make it."
In 36 years with three school districts, Bull counts his sick days on one hand—five—and tallies just as many in 13 years as a carrier, first as a substitute in 2000 and then as a full-timer in 2007. The temperatures he works in can swing 120 degrees, from 115 in the summer to below zero in the winter’s wind.
Five years ago, the snow and ice were so deep on the road that his power steering gave out. He zigged and zagged and tore through an electric fence, leaving a hole for 50 head of cattle to roam free. He pushed on the gas, nudging the truck out of trouble and to the nearest farm for help.
"You just never know what might happen," Bull says over rib-eye and potato salad at his favorite steakhouse.
Bull stands at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds. His resting pulse is 43. He had his left knee replaced in 2009. A Southern Baptist, he doesn’t smoke or drink, though he does favor an occasional plate of greasy ribs.
His facial features are long and angular and his complexion ruddy. In summer, he wears sneakers, dungaree shorts and a red T-shirt with a “Postal Worker” icon nestled over an eagle, his only identifier. (His truck has no lettering, because “they already know it’s me coming.”)
Still, by the end of the week, Bull is tuckered out. He says he hopes to keep going for another three years, if his health holds up. Daily, he confronts the aches, pains and muscle pulls of sitting for hours, steering with one hand and snapping open mailboxes with the other.
"I’m kind of weary by Friday," he says. "But then I recuperate on the weekend."
How does he do that? “I mow my lawn.”