Retail and fast food jobs with rising pay lure older workers into roles once filled by teens

  • Over the past year, average hourly earnings rose 5% in retail jobs and 7.5% in restaurants and bars as those industries hiked pay in response to stubborn labor shortages.
  • By comparison, wages rose 4.6% for all industries.
  • The share of 30-and-older job candidates hired in fast food rose from 4% at the end of 2021 to 7% at the end of last year.

Steve Weeks, of Bradenton, Florida, was making the most of his 5-year-old retirement, filling his days with pickleball, golf, two-hour gym workouts and visits with his daughter and grandchildren.

But Weeks, who was living solely on Social Security checks, found himself scrimping on some of his cherished indulgences, like dining out, because of a historic inflation spike. The former mattress salesman and manager also missed the action – schmoozing with customers at work, putting a smile on their faces.

So a couple of months ago, Weeks, 69, took a $15-an-hour, part-time job as a host at Anna Maria Oyster Bar, a popular local restaurant. He greets patrons at the outdoor podium, shows them to their tables and does “whatever it takes.”

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Steve Weeks at Anna Maria Oyster Bar

“I still had some work left in me,” he says. “Let’s stay at it a couple more years; let’s see what I can do. … I love talking to people.” Co-workers who are decades younger “can’t keep up with me.”

“The extra money,” he adds, “is helpful.”

More older workers are taking jobs typically filled by teenagers or young adults, such as restaurant host, fast-food cashier and retail associate.

While many are seniors seeking additional cash to cope with inflation, some workers in their 30s and 40s are turning to such positions for more flexible, part-time hours, especially since wages in those industries have risen sharply the past couple of years, according to experts and technology firms that track employee hiring and scheduling.

“What used to be low-wage, entry-level work has seen significant upward pressure on hourly wage rates,” says Oliver Staehelin, chief strategy and development officer of Harver, which makes software that helps companies winnow down job candidates.

The trend is helping ease worker shortages that have affected most industries but hit restaurants and shops even harder.

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What is the current US wage growth?

Over the past year, average hourly earnings rose 5% to $23.81 in retail jobs, and 7.5% to $19.34 in restaurants and bars as those industries hiked pay in response to stubborn labor shortages, Labor Department figures show. By comparison, wages rose 4.6% for all industries. 

But even with higher pay and an uptick in workers, shortfalls persist. Restaurants and bars are still more than 100,000 employees below their pre-COVID payrolls while retail just returned to its pre-crisis level in February. 

Meanwhile, 27 states and 59 cities and counties are lifting their minimum wages this year, with Connecticut, Massachusetts and Washington joining California and New York, along with several dozen cities, at $15 an hour.

The higher pay is luring older workers and helping fill positions typically populated by workers just beginning their careers. Fifty-five percent of retirees who work said the main reason they do so is financial need, according to an AARP survey last year.

The share of 30-and-older job candidates hired in fast food increased from 4% at the end of 2021 to 7% at the end of last year, Harver data shows.

In retail, baby boomers (ages 59 to 77) made up 23% of all shift hours last year, up from 20% in 2020, according to Deputy, which makes employee scheduling software. Generation X (43 to 58) employees comprised 21% of working hours, up from 20%.

And 7% of job applicants brought on by retailers last month were 50 or older, up from 6% a year earlier, according to Gusto, which handles payrolls for small businesses.

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More older workers are taking jobs typically filled by teenagers or young adults, such as restaurant host, fast-food cashier and retail associate.

Inflation takes steak off the menu

Weeks, the restaurant host in Florida, felt squeezed by higher food costs and was eating more hamburgers when he dined out as ribeye steak prices climbed from about $15 two years ago to $30 to $35. He also was forgoing trips to a local gourmet coffee roastery and putting off the purchase of new running shoes.

“This (job) just takes care of all these things,” as well as high gas prices, Weeks says, noting he brings home about $300 after putting in a 26-hour work week.

Just as significant are the small pleasures he derives from hosting.

“I’d never worked in restaurants before,” he says. “Learning something new … that’s a lot of fun.”

At the same time, he says, “It’s no different than greeting people at the mattress store. It’s like nothing for me.”

“Talking to people keeps you young,” he says. “Maybe you can help someone with just a smile. ... I think people look at me and say, ‘He’s my age and he’s got so much energy.’”

Weeks says he looks forward to a shift as much as a pickleball game or gym workout.

“They actually don’t need to pay me to do this,” he says.

About 20% to 25% of job applicants at the restaurant are in their 50s and 60s, up from 10% a couple of years ago, says John Horne, CEO of Oysters Rock Hospitality, owner of several Anna Maria Oyster Bar locations in Bradenton.

Jobs offer 'fun environment'

Many workers in their 30s, 40s and 50s have stayed on the sidelines of the job market because of health and safety concerns, says Mike Whatley, vice president of state affairs and grassroots advocacy for the National Restaurant Association.

Now that the pandemic has abated, “They do want to engage,” he says, adding that many prefer the flexibility that part-time restaurant positions offer. More than 21 million Americans voluntarily worked part-time in February, up from 17.8 million in December 2020.

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Many former white-collar workers toiling from home miss the social dynamics of an office, Whatley says.

“Some of that has gone away,” he says, adding that some of those workers are applying for restaurant positions instead because “it’s a fun environment. ... The social interaction is key.”

"I think part of it is people just want to get out of the house again," Horne says of older job applicants.

Older workers bring 'soft skills'

Older workers bring more experience and communication skills to customer-facing roles. They “tend to be more dependable, displaying higher levels of punctuality, lower absenteeism, and less inclination toward job hopping,” says Silvija Martincevic, CEO of Deputy, the scheduling software company,

Wyclif Kpanou, who manages Westside Donut, a chain of several dozen donut franchises in the New York City area, says he’s seeing more job applications from workers in their 30s, such as mothers who can’t find affordable childcare. He says he recently staged a recruitment drive that drew 300 applicants but just 25 showed up for an interview, all older candidates, and seven were hired.

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Younger workers, he says, “don’t really know what it is to be committed to a job.”

Sayki, a men’s clothing chain in the New York and Washington, D.C., areas, as well as Chicago, has seen a 50% spike in applications from workers in their 30s and older the past six months, says Managing Director Emre Duru.

Some, he says, were laid off from the tech or other white-collar industries; others were Uber, DoorDash and other gig workers seeking higher pay

But he says he has hired few of them because many have children and can’t work nights or weekends, or they require at least a $20 hourly wage. He’d like to bring on others.

“They’re on time, they leave on time, they dress nice,” Duru says.