MANGUM, Okla. — He's on County Road 1680 moving like a black-tailed jackrabbit 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.
One, two, now three, they invade. Jim Ed Bull swats with a big hand. "They can hurt ya bad," he says.
Other on-the-job nuisances include hail, mud, diamondback rattlers, wild boars, coyotes, bobcats, porcupines and skunks. Bull keeps on driving. Past stunted wheat fields of drought and disappointment, he rolls.
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 America, 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 and over 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 to 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.