IT careers: Retire? How about never?

Bye-bye, time share. Late-career IT pros retool for an extended stay in the workforce.

For as long as he could remember, Ben Richardson had big plans for an early retirement.

Passionate about computers, but anxious to leave the confines of a desk job, Richardson, a technical adviser in database services for CVS/Caremark, had prepped for a host of post-tech alternatives even as he met the demands of his IT career.

He took classes and labored on business plans, dreaming of the time when he would be able to retire from IT and pursue his love of what he calls "blue-collar hobbies."

He thought he might teach school, start an HVAC business or even get into general contracting and welding. "I wanted to spend more time outside and get healthy," Richardson explains. "Sitting in a chair for 30 years takes its toll."

Scratch that. Thanks to the tanking economy, Richardson, now 52, has put all those plans on hold. "When the recession hit, I knew I wasn't going to be able to retire," he says. "I decided to hunker down and keep my current job because the market was so poor. I have a good-paying job here, and changing jobs now isn't such a good idea."

Nearly two years into the recession, shrinking nest eggs and the fear of skyrocketing health care costs are forcing late-career IT professionals to trade dreams of early retirement for the reality of toiling extra years in the workforce.

Instead of channeling their energies to around-the-world travel, starting a new business or devoting time to volunteer work, IT veterans find themselves either actively in the job market or desperately safeguarding their current employment. They're refocusing on career management, ramping up their skills training and trying to be as flexible about their job responsibilities as a twentysomething just starting out.

Whippersnappers in the rear view

IT is hardly the only career sector ravaged by the recession -- in fact, experts say that it has weathered the storm better than most. (For example, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for the third quarter of fiscal year 2009 indicated that unemployment rates for several key IT positions averaged 5.8%, which is substantially lower than the overall Q3 U.S. average unemployment rate of 8.9% for all fields.)

But budget cuts and layoffs have forced many IT departments to make do with less, leaving older IT workers vulnerable to younger employees whose skills may be more up to date and who are often willing to take less pay, work more hours and take on less desirable assignments.

Overall, the recession has had far more of an economic impact on late-middle-aged adults. In an April Pew Research Center study of 2,969 adults aged 50 to 64, nearly 75% said the nation's economic problems are making it difficult to afford retirement.

Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed in that age bracket said their 401(k) accounts or individual stocks have been clobbered, with two in 10 claiming that their investments have lost 40% of their value and another four in 10 saying nearly 20% to 40% of their retirement funds have been erased.

"Everyone has been deeply affected by poor stock performance, and if you're depending on a 401(k) plan to retire, you probably can't do it just yet," says David Van De Voort, an IT workforce strategy consultant at Mercer LLC. "I get the sense that people are changing their plans in earnest," he says, particularly in new-economy sectors like IT, where retirement savings are more likely to be tied to the stock market.

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