A demographic tidal wave of Baby Boomers is aging into the realm of retirement, but that doesn't mean they're all calling it quits. Older workers will be the fastest-growing segment of the workforce from 2014 to 2024, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates.
Count Jeff Olingy among them. He's 71 and working as director of corporate partnerships for Launch Chattanooga, a nonprofit organization that provides mentoring, funding and other resources for entrepreneurs.
"I had good intentions for three months of making retirement work, but I failed at it miserably," says Olingy, who spent his career in banking and finance. "I'm terrible at retirement."
Bill Lee, who founded Gate 11 Distillery with his wife, Wanda, didn't find retirement appealing, either.
"To me, 20 years of retirement seems like a strange way to end your life," says Lee, 69.
By 2024, about 13 million people 65 and older will still be working, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects.
While the overall number of workers is expected to increase by 5% over those 10 years, the number of workers ages 65 to 74 will increase by 55%, according to the labor data. And for those 75 and older, the total in the workforce will jump 86%, the data shows.
As long as he's healthy, he'll work, Olingy says.
"I do know me, and I have to be engaged and doing things and active," he says. "And I don't have a lot of hobbies."
Since 1996, labor participation rates have steadily increased among people 65 and older. The participation rate for workers 65 to 74 is expected to be 30.2 percent in 2026, compared with 17.5 percent in 1996. For workers 75 and older, the participation rate in 2026 is projected to be 10.8 percent, compared with 4.7 percent in 1996.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
A New Mix
Bill and Wanda Lee
* Age: Both 69
* First career: He was a chemical engineer, she was a middle school teacher.
* Their third act: Founders of Gate 11 Distillery in downtown Chattanooga.
When they hatched their plan for Gate 11 Distillery, Bill and Wanda Lee were at a point in their lives when many people gear down and kick back.
"We're both 69," Bill says. "We are definitely at an age when a lot of people retire, and we definitely had full careers."
Instead, the Lees are working together to distill small batches of rum, gin, vodka and absinthe at their bar and production facility at the Chattanooga Choo Choo complex on Market Street. The gin they spent three years perfecting recently took home double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
"This is really a continuation of what I've been doing for a long time," says Bill, who's a retired chemical engineer. "The difference is this is something we own together and I'm working with my wife every day."
He was all in to open the distillery, which has been in business since February 2019, Bill says.
"I'm a risk-taker," he says. "I always have been."
Wanda, however, was a little more cautious.
"I was probably a little more worried about it than he was," she says. "We weren't young, and I knew we would probably have to work long hours and put everything on the line."
The distillery is a labor of love that's fun "most of the time," Wanda says. The Lees host live music three days a week, and make all their own syrups for the cocktails they create. The stage, where Bill's guitar is propped up, was a must, he says.
"I'm a musician," he says. "I wasn't going to have a bar and not have a stage."
Working together full time is both a benefit and a challenge, say the Lees, who have been married 48 years.
"When you're all in with your spouse on a new venture, you don't have a place to go to get away from it," Bill says.
But if they're going to take this leap somewhere, Chattanooga is the place they want to be, Wanda says. After decades away, the Lees were ready to get back to Bill's home region, she says.
"My plan was always to come back to Chattanooga," Wanda says. "I love Chattanooga."
Bill is a native of Pikeville, Tennessee, whose family is seven generations deep in the area. He and Wanda live in his mother's old log cabin in Soddy Daisy — the part they call 'Old Soddy'.
Wanda, a Memphis native, met Bill at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and the two traveled all over the country while Bill worked as a chemical engineer, first in research and development for big food companies, then for 20 years in biofuels.
Wanda worked as a middle school teacher, and landed jobs wherever they traveled, including Tennessee, Missouri, Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota, where they spent 15 years.
At one point, Wanda shifted gears and went to work helping with administrative and office management tasks for the company where Bill worked. Minnesota is also where they first dabbled in distilling, cooking up vodka for a client that turned into an international hit.
They came back to Chattanooga in 2009.
"Wanda was going to put her feet up," Bill jokes. But then Bill started doing consulting work for distilleries, including helping to develop the process for distilling Templeton Rye Whiskey, and the Lees ultimately decided they had what it took to open their own operation.
"We thought, Chattanooga just has one distillery, and it's big enough for more than one distillery," Bill says. "Let's create a business we can operate ourselves."
They do, however, make time to visit their son and his family in Atlanta, and they plan to get to England soon to see their daughter and her family, Wanda says. The balance of time on and time off is critical, and they learned that the hard way when they had a stretch of working seven days a week in the early days of the business, she adds.
"Eventually we'll have to retire, but it doesn't wear you out to work as long as you make time for days off," Wanda says.
This may be a new chapter, but his skills in research and development are still front-and-center in his work, Bill says. "I'm still an R&D guy at heart," Bill says. "Nothing is more exciting for me than coming up with a new product."
But life isn't all cool cocktails and live music. The challenges of running their business have included getting the hang of social media marketing and learning the ropes of building a strong team, the Lees say. The staff they have now is the best it's ever been, and that has made balance easier, they say.
"We're learning to take time off," Wanda says.
They are also enjoying working with other local small businesses, donating proceeds from a designated cocktail each month to the Pet Placement Center, and collaborating with Crabtree Farms on their annual 100 Dinner fundraiser.
"As long as you have the creative urge to start a business, it doesn't matter how old you are," Bill says.
A Sense of Purpose
* Age: 71
* First career: Banking and finance
* His third act: Director of corporate partnerships for Launch Chattanooga, a nonprofit organization that provides mentoring, funding and other resources for entrepreneurs.
For Jeff Olingy, retirement means something very different for his generation than it did for his father's.
"My dad was 65 when he retired, and he died at 68," Olingy says. "I don't know when, but I could live another 15 or 20 years."
In fact, the Social Security Administration estimates today's 65-year-olds will live another 19 to 21 years, on average. Olingy intends to make the most of those years, he says.
"I don't want to sit around and do nothing," says Olingy, 71, who became director of corporate partnerships for Launch Chattanooga in March. "I am keeping busy, but I feel like I'm in control of that. As long as I can still do it, I'll do it."
In November 2020, Olingy wrapped up a long career in banking and finance, retiring from his role as president of Community National Bank, which had recently merged with SimplyBank.
Prior to that role, he had a variety of jobs, including senior vice president and chief marketing officer for FSG bank, executive vice president at UnumProvident, and leadership roles at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and Chattanooga State Community College.
He's always been comfortable with change, having grown up in a family that moved around a lot, and building a career that took him from places as varied as Boston, Charleston and Washington, D.C., Olingy says. He moved to Chattanooga in 1996 to take a job at Unum, then known as UnumProvident.
Now he's helping Launch Chattanooga find new financial footing as the organization marks its 10th anniversary. The role gives him the opportunity to use his finance and banking background to build a risk-based strategy the way he would for any business, Olingy says.
"The mission of Launch is tried and true and has been successful," he says. "We're spreading out the risk of funding that mission."
He works four days a week, which gives him the combination of flexibility and accountability he needs, Olingy says.
"I can be a little undisciplined, but if I have an obligation to an employer, I take that very seriously," he says.
Olingy has also opted to do more volunteering, joining the boards of Mustard Seed Ministries and the Lookout Mountain Conservancy. He and his wife, Julie, have been able to travel recently to see their grandchildren in Texas, Rhode Island and Maryland, as well as visiting her ailing father in North Carolina.
In previous jobs, he would often work every day, rarely pausing to rest. But now he needs the time to recharge, Olingy says.
"The routine becomes more important, making time for rest," he says. "The weekends become much more important. I can do it if I have that period of time."
He anticipates another 10 years of being able to have what he calls an 'active' retirement before his health might prompt him to opt for a more passive phase, Olingy says.
"I've been blessed. My health has always been good," he says. "As long as I have my health, both mental and physical, I have it all."
Above all, Olingy says, he wants to remain engaged and contribute to his community.
"As I look at the future, I don't think that as I continue to age that I'll fear death. My faith helps me with that," he says. "What I have the possibility of fearing is becoming irrelevant. When I get up in the morning, I want to know I have a purpose."
'My heart's in Chattanooga'
Bill and Dona Burke
* Age: Bill is 65, Dona is 64
* First career: Bill is an accountant, and Dona does part-time office management for his firm.
* Their third act: Moving to Chattanooga from South Georgia to be near the kids and grandkids, but still keeping a hand in at work.
After 37 years in South Georgia, Bill and Dona Burke moved to Chattanooga in June to be closer to their grown children and their grandchildren. It's a retirement move, they say, but that doesn't mean retirement is coming just yet, adds Bill, 65.
"I'm going to work remotely here and go back seven days a month to meet people one-on-one," says Bill, an accountant. "I have no real hobbies besides hiking, and my mother retired at 72, and my business partner retired at 63, and he had the most boring and sad life, and I said, 'I'm not doing that.'"
Dona, who has worked as an office manager since 1989 at the firm Bill joined in 1984, says she retired in July last year. But did she?
"I go back in during the main tax times, January to April, September and October," says Dona, 64. "We still have an apartment down there, and I can still help out during the real busy times when they need an extra hand."
On second thought, Dona adds, maybe she's "semi-retired."
"I've always tried to be a helper if they need my help," she says. "I love everybody we work with."
Bill agrees, adding that the relationships they have formed over decades with the firm based in Donalsonville, Georgia, are important.
"It's a people business, a relationship business," he says. "It gives me energy every day."
But getting closer to their grown children and grandchildren was also important to them at this stage of their lives, and the rise of remote work has opened a world of options, Bill says.
"COVID made me start working more remotely, and I find I'm more productive that way," he says.
There was a problem, though, he adds. He would sit down to work in the morning and never take breaks, powering through hours without interruption.
"One of our other remote workers told me, 'I have the same problem, and Bill, you have to get a dog to make you get up and walk around the neighborhood,'" Bill says. "So I got two dogs."
Now that they're getting settled in Chattanooga, the Burkes are looking forward to enjoying their family and the sights and events of the city, as well as staying plugged in with the colleagues they've had for years.
"I was looking for places several years ago to start working remotely, and some friends had gone to Lake Lanier outside of Atlanta, and I was looking at somewhere halfway in between," Bill says. "Then we thought about LaGrange, [Georgia], but none of them had anything going during the middle of the week, and I said, 'Well, my heart's in Chattanooga.'"