The American working class is grayer than it used to be, as nearly 9 million people are employed past the often cited retirement age of 65, up from 4 million in 2000, according to the Pew Research Center.
Despite the maturing workforce, stereotypes promoting older employees as out of touch or inefficient abound — and their accuracy is questionable.
“Of course there’s a bias against older people working,” says Nathan Lewin, a polished 80-year-old lawyer from Potomac. “The assumption is that if you’re older you must be physically weak or you may be mentally unstable … and the reality is that the stamina one has at the age of 40 and 50 does not stay the same at the age of 70 and 80.”
Still, the veteran litigator, who has argued 28 cases before the nation’s highest court, including those of celebrity clients including Robert Kennedy, John Lennon, former president Richard Nixon and Jodie Foster, said that “the only thing that would make me stop working is if I dropped dead.”
Born in Lodz, Poland, Lewin escaped to Japan before coming to the United States in 1941. He attended Yeshiva College, where his father taught Jewish history, and was quickly recruited by both Yale and Harvard law schools. After graduating from Harvard Law School magna cum laude in 1960, he immediately began working as a law clerk for Chief Judge J. Edward Lumbard of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and for Justice John M. Harlan of the Supreme Court.
But even after 56 years of court appearances and wearing Snoopy ties, Lewin isn’t tearing down his shingle. He attributes his work ethic to his father who continued to stay active at the age of 90.
“Even in a hospital bed, within the last year of his life, (my father) continued to write and be active,” Lewin says. “I thought that was a great model. If you can continue doing things physically and mentally, you do it.”
Although Lewin loves to travel and spend time at the movies, he prefers staying “current and active” by taking on more roles at the office and by teaching a seminar at Columbia Law School on religious cases brought before the Supreme Court.
He also leads daily Talmud classes at the synagogue he attends, Beth Shalom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac.
Dr. Rochelle Herman, 66, finds religious connections in her professional life. She says it takes a “spiritual way of looking at people” to work as a correctional psychiatrist in Maryland jails, where she can treat up to 100 recovering opioid users a week.
“As a religious person, there are many things that keep me very hopeful, like the Talmud says, ‘If you save one life it’s as if you saved the world,’” Herman says. “When I started this job I knew that there was going to be a lot of pessimism involved … and I know that 90 percent of the people that I see, no matter what I do, are going to go back to their way of living.”
Herman contracts with a private company that serves four correctional facilities, in Hagerstown, Frederick, Carroll and Baltimore counties, and treats people serving a sentence of up to 18 months or who are awaiting trial.
Before assuming this job, she headed the psychiatric ward of a state hospital, where she conducted court-ordered evaluations for patients who were considering entering insanity pleas.
“It was much more dangerous there than it was in jail,” Herman says. “Once somebody choked me; somebody pulled my hair once. It occurred over the years, but it’s not a correctional institution, so you don’t have officers, you have nurses.”
Though Herman says the milieu of her current job is “the most negative place to work,” because it’s dark, dingy and her clients are sometimes brought from the streets fully intoxicated and vomiting, she’s not planning to quit.
“It never stops fascinating me. I’ll always be thinking of new things to intervene with patients, and the science is evolving constantly,” Herman says. “I can’t imagine not working. … It’s my vocation, my calling in life.”
Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, regional director of Chabad-Lubavitch in Maryland, knows that feeling.
“I don’t have a ‘career,’” Kaplan says. “I chose to do what I believe is the most important thing in the world, which is to promote Jewish education and Jewish identity in order to ensure our future.”
Raised in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Kaplan studied under the direction of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, at the movement’s headquarters in the Crown Heights community of Brooklyn, N.Y. After returning from a trip to Australia, the 25-year-old Kaplan, with the Rebbe’s blessing, pioneered Chabad in Maryland in 1974.
Now more than four decades later, Kaplan, 67, directs 20 Chabad centers, two schools of 250 students — a cheder and a post-high school yeshiva — and officiates at the shul at the Lubavitch Center in Baltimore.
He says the decision stop working is a decision only God can make.
“I would do just what I’m doing now,” Kaplan says of retirement. “I would study, I would seek to influence others.”
Despite national forecasts that Social Security will dry up by 2030, while the baby boomer population swells to a record 84 million in the United States by 2050, Herman and Lewin aren’t fazed.
“For myself I’m not worried — but for my kids yes, they’re going to have to find their own way,” says Herman, who has a 401k and a pension from her time at the hospital.
“I’m too busy doing other things than to worry about what’s going to happen in 2030,” Lewin says. “If I make it to that age, I’ll be happy.”