High-paying retail and fast food jobs are drawing older workers into roles previously held by teenagers

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

But Weeks, who lived only on his Social Security checks, found himself forgoing some cherished indulgences, like eating out, because of a date High inflation. The former mattress salesperson and manager also missed the event – chatting to customers at work, putting a smile on their faces.

So two months ago, Weeks, 69, took a part-time, $15-an-hour job as a host at Anna Maria Oyster Bar, a popular local restaurant. He greets diners on the outside platform, shows them to their tables, and does whatever it takes.

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Steve Weeks At Anna Maria Oyster Bar

Steve Weeks at Anna Maria Oyster Bar

“I still have some work to do,” he says. “Let’s stay at it a few 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 is helpful,” he adds.

More older workers are taking jobs typically held by teens or young adults, such as restaurant attendant, fast food cashier, and retail associate.

While many seniors seek extra cash to deal with inflation, some workers in their 30s and 40s are turning to such jobs for more flexible part-time hours, especially since wages in those industries have risen sharply in the past two years, According to experts and technology companies that track employee hiring and scheduling.

“What used to be low-paying work has seen significant upward pressure on hourly rates,” says Oliver Staelin, chief strategy and development officer at Harver, which makes software that helps companies screen job candidates.

Direction helps mitigate shortage of workers Which affected most industries but hit restaurants and stores the hardest.

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What is the current wage growth in the United States?

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 raised wages in response to stubborn labor shortages, according to Labor Department figures. By comparison, wages rose 4.6% for all industries.

But even as wages rise and workers increase, shortages persist. Restaurants and bars are still less than 100,000 employees short of their pre-COVID salary while retail has just returned to its pre-crisis level in February.

Meanwhile, 27 states and 59 cities and counties have raised their minimum wage this year, with Connecticut, Massachusetts and Washington joining California and New York, along with dozens of cities, at $15 an hour.

Higher wages attract older workers and help fill jobs normally filled by workers just starting their careers. Fifty-five percent of working retirees said the main reason they do so is financial need, according to a survey conducted by AARP last year.

Harver data showed that the share of job candidates over 30 who were hired by fast food increased from 4% at the end of 2024 to 7% at the end of last year.

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

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

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Inflation takes steak off the menu

The host of Weeks Restaurant in Florida felt pressured by rising food costs and was eating more hamburgers when he dined as steak prices rose from about $15 two years ago to $30 to $35. He’d also forgo trips to a local gourmet coffee roaster and put off buying new running shoes.

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

Equally important are the little pleasures he derives from hosting.

“I had never worked in restaurants before,” he says. “Learn something new…that’s so much fun.”

At the same time, he says, “It’s not unlike greeting people at the mattress store. It feels like nothing to 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 a lot of energy.'”

Weeks says he looks forward to a transformation like a game of pickleball or a gym workout.

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

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

Jobs provide a “fun environment”

Many workers in their 30s, 40s and 50s have remained 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.

And now that the pandemic has abated, “they want to get involved,” he says, adding that many prefer the flexibility that part-time restaurant jobs 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 out on the social dynamics of the office, Whatley says.

“Some of that is gone,” he says, adding that some of these workers are applying for positions at the restaurant instead because it is “a fun environment. … Social interaction is key.”

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

Older workers bring ‘soft skills’

Older workers bring more experience and communication skills to customer-facing roles. Silvija Martinsevic, CEO, Vice President of Scheduling Software, says:

Wyclif Kpanou, who runs Westside Donut, a chain of dozens of donut franchises in the New York City area, says he’s seeing more job orders from workers in their 30s, such as mothers who can’t find affordable childcare. He says he recently ran a recruitment drive that attracted 300 applicants but only 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 a commitment to a job is.”

Sayki, a menswear chain in New York and Washington, D.C., as well as Chicago, has seen a 50% rise in orders from workers in their 30s and older over the past six months, says managing director Emre Duru.

Some, he says, have been laid off from technology or other white-collar industries; Others are Uber, DoorDash and other gig workers seeking higher wages

But he says he has hired a few because many of them have children and can’t work nights or weekends, or they demand a minimum wage of $20 an hour. He would like to bring others.

“They’re on time, they leave on time, they wear nice clothes,” Doro says.

This article originally appeared in the USA TODAY: Retail and fast food jobs are attracting older workers and easing shortages