Russ Creason, 84, goes to work every day because he loves it and can't imagine not working. Ken Moberg, 61, retired after 30 years at one...

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Russ Creason, 84, goes to work every day because he loves it and can’t imagine not working.

Ken Moberg, 61, retired after 30 years at one company — and then created a thriving new business from a sidelight interest.

Donald Long, 78, and Evelyn Merchant, 67, are desperately hunting for jobs so they can pay their bills, which have mounted since they lost work.

For reasons both self-fulfilling and financial, older workers are a fast-growing presence in the labor force.

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Last year, there were more people 55 and older in the work force than at any time since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began publishing that kind of data in 1948.

Last year also marked the highest labor-force participation rate — 36 percent — of 55-and-older workers since 1972.

And that’s just the beginning of what is expected to be an older-worker onslaught that will reshape the face of working America.

The bureau projects that between 2002 and 2012, the annual growth rate of the 55-and-older group will be 4.1 percent — or four times the annual growth rate for the overall labor force. By 2012, nearly one in five American workers will be 55 or older.

“The statistics don’t tell us if the older workers are being forced back or not retiring because of economics, because of health-care costs or because they want to work,” said Sylvia Allegretto, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. “But the growth in their labor-force participation rate stands out among all age cohorts.”

Good health and longer life expectancies play the biggest role in extended work lives. But some retirees have returned to the work force because low interest rates slashed interest income from their certificates of deposit or their retirement-savings plans collapsed.

Economists note that most Americans have done a poor job of saving for retirement. Some studies show the typical household-savings rate is about 1 percent of income. Thus, many retirees are finding they can’t maintain their lifestyles on Social Security alone, especially if they’re saddled with high costs for prescription medicines and health-care services.

AARP recently reported that 68 percent of workers between the ages of 50 and 70 plan to work in retirement or never retire.

But Ken Dychtwald, a gerontologist and founder of Age Wave, a think tank and consulting group focused on the aging population, said older workers are working more because they want to than because they have to.

He noted that the “longevity bonus” was giving current and future retirees an opportunity to remake their work lives after “retiring.”

“The boomer dream is to continue working, but without as much stress,” Dychtwald said. “They want a new blend of fun and satisfying work. They want to take a breath at the end of their first careers and reinvent themselves.”

Count Creason among those working for enjoyment, long after others retired. He goes to Right Management Consultants’ office every day, where he specializes in senior executive counseling.

After a 31-year career with General Motors that gave him broad exposure to management, human-resources and public-relations disciplines, Creason established a consulting business in Chicago when he was 61. In 1994, he and his wife decided to move to Kansas City. Blessed with good health and energy, he found a spot at Right.

“I never got old,” Creason shrugs. “I think this is an important trend. This country can’t afford to have 50 percent of its population inventoried.

“People my age now, physically and psychologically, may be up to 20 years younger than they were a few decades ago. There’s no reason to stop working, no reason to lose that growth of experience.”

Executive recruiters say some employers are eager to embrace the accumulated wisdom and strong work ethic of older workers.

That’s not the case across the hiring landscape, though.

Heavy cost cutting by businesses since the 2001 recession caught many older workers in layoffs that fed a widespread impression of age discrimination.

Whether older workers were cut because they earned higher salaries — and thus could create greater cost savings — or their skills were outdated or they were outright victims of discrimination is being addressed in many individual and class-action lawsuits.

But older workers’ dismissals haven’t reversed their desire — or need — to be in the work force.

Long, for example, didn’t get a severance package or job-transition assistance from his former job. He and his partner of 28 years, Evelyn Merchant, lived and worked as on-site managers of a self-storage facility.

One day nearly two years ago, their boss said it was time for a management change and took their keys.

“We thought we were doing the job. Nobody ever said we weren’t,” Long said. “But just like that, we had no money coming in and no home.”

Long renovated the modest house where they currently live. It had been sitting vacant. He said he has the skills to do painting and handyman work or work in a retail home-improvement store, but he hasn’t yet pushed the right hiring buttons.

“A lot of good labor is going to waste,” Long said. “I’m not doing any good sitting here watching TV.”

For her part, Merchant said she could be a waitress or perhaps work at a Wal-Mart near their Kansas City, Kan., home. But the one time that she tried to apply, she was flummoxed by the computerized application process and gave up.

Meanwhile, they’ve sold off many of their assets, including Long’s work van, and they are in debt. Their combined monthly Social Security income of $1,250 isn’t enough, and they’re worried that their credit problems will prevent them from being hired.

Retirement, for them, is not an option.

The definition of retirement will continue to evolve.

Sue Willman, an employment-law attorney at Spencer Fane, notes that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act made mandatory retirement ages unlawful in most instances.

Exceptions may be made in the case of such jobs as policing and firefighting, which have physical requirements, or for certain highly placed executives.

But, while the law said most workers can’t be booted out the door when they reach a certain age, many workers have held to the notion of retiring at age 62, when they could begin to draw reduced Social Security benefits, or at age 65, when full Social Security benefits would kick in.

That is changing, though, as the age for full benefits creeps higher. For a boomer born in 1953, for example, the retirement age for full benefits will be 66.

Just as boomers aim to work longer, though, more are being offered voluntary early-retirement packages by their employers.

Those opportunities create the kind of early retiree that Moberg exemplifies.

When Moberg ended his career selling farm implements for Case International, he didn’t feel old, which is a good thing, because “I never worked so hard in my life.”

Retirement gave Moberg the opportunity “to do something on my own.”

He didn’t need the money, so he was able to build his new business slowly. Without intending to, he now has one of the largest barbecue-catering businesses in the Midwest. He’s fed as many as 6,000 people in a day.

“I had time to play with it,” Moberg said of his business. “There was a big learning curve, but I was able to move into it very cautiously.”

Now, he figures, “I’m going to retire five years after I’m dead.”