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Picture: BLOOMBERG
Picture: BLOOMBERG

At a Trader Joe’s store on Manhattan’s upper east side, staff members shepherd the snaking checkout line as shoppers snap up last-minute cookies, gnocchi and organic balsamic vinegar. What stands out this spring day is that above the store’s signature Hawaiian shirts, there’s a lot of grey hair. 

Before the pandemic, retail and fast-food industries were embracing older workers. Chains such as McDonald’s were actively trying to recruit more seniors. But over the past two years, many of those in their late 60s and 70s have left the workforce and not returned. In a tight job market, where retailers and restaurants are short of everyone from cashiers to delivery drivers, this demographic represents a vastly underutilised pool of labour.

Companies should be encouraging applications from a diverse pool of candidates and removing barriers to employing people over 55.

For years, older Americans have been continuing to work for longer, as life expectancy rates rose and many were unwilling or unable to retire. That came to a halt with the health crisis. While the labour force participation rate for Americans between 55 and 64 has returned to pre-pandemic levels, the rates for those in their late 60s and 70s are still lagging, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s a shame particularly for the retail and hospitality sectors, which desperately need workers to meet demand. More mature employees also bring a wealth of experience, such as knowing how to deal with customers. A 2009 study by Lancaster University, which examined the performance of more than 400 McDonald’s restaurants across the UK , found that levels of customer satisfaction were, on average, 20% higher in outposts with staff aged 60 and over.

The rise of “Granfluencers” on Instagram and TikTok has also demonstrated that the elderly can be great at selling and connecting with audiences.

Some companies are smartly turning to seniors once more. AARP, an advocacy group for Americans over 50, has developed an Employer Pledge, which companies can sign to show that they value older workers. Those looking for employment through the AARP jobs board can filter their search to show vacancies from pledge signers. In the first quarter of this year, AARP saw twice as many new signers as in the equivalent period in 2021.

But there are other ways to reach these workers. Retailers and restaurants can boost hiring by ensuring staff know what vacancies their stores have and enabling them to help jobseekers apply for roles on the spot. The more people see seniors in stores — for example, at Walmart almost 13% of the US workforce is over 60 — the more likely others will apply.

On top of providing more benefits, from pensions to generous staff discounts, offering flexibility would be another way to attract workers. Just as employers are adapting to hybrid office and home working, they should be open-minded about new shift patterns. Many older workers want to work part-time. Shorter, flexible hours may also be necessary to care for grandchildren and other relatives. 

Picture: BLOOMBERG.
Picture: BLOOMBERG.

Unilever, the maker of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Dove body wash, has developed U-Work, an employment programme designed to combine both flexibility and security. Designed as an alternative to the gig economy, it is also suitable for those approaching retirement. U-Work is available in 10 countries, though not yet in the US , and has 100 participants. Employees get paid for the projects they work on, as well as a monthly retainer and benefits, though these are configured differently from those attached to full-time contracts.

For instance, Unilever offered internships for over-60s in Argentina that came with competitive salaries. The company was so impressed with applicants that it created a database of profiles for future recruitment. A separate initiative is expanding the skills of more mature workers in its US factories.

Indeed, creating more opportunities for older people to develop their careers is imperative. At B&Q, the British DIY retailer where about half of the workforce is over 50, employees of any age can do an apprenticeship. In fact, some 36 staff between 50 and 64 have completed the training, and 41 between 50 and 70 are currently in the process of doing so.

It’s important to have a broad range of roles available. Not all older people will be able to lift heavy loads or stand for long periods. Finding ways to leverage their skills would go a long way towards recruitment and retention. It would also help others with disabilities or health concerns thrive at work.

Inflation, particularly damaging to those on fixed incomes, may ultimately encourage more older people back to work. In the meantime, companies should be doing as much as they can to attract a diverse range of applicants. Talent can be found across all ages. 

Bloomberg. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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