I was 64 on New Year’s Eve 2015, when I worked my last shift at the Chicago Tribune. I packed up my cubicle, turned off the lights and – just like that – dropped the curtain on one of the most rewarding chapters of my life.
At first, I was giddy with all the freedom – reading those books that had piled up on my nightstand, organizing closets, traveling, meeting friends for leisurely lunches (such a pleasure after hundreds of Lean Cuisines at my desk).
But after a few years, the novelty had worn off. I never felt comfortable with the label “retiree” which seemed better suited to someone in a gated community, with sherbet-colored pants and a golf cart.
Besides, I missed work, which had always brought a rhythm to my days. I longed for the buzz of activity, the over-the-cubicle banter with co-workers, a reason to wear make-up. Most importantly, I still had a lot of gas in the tank.
So, I was delighted when I walked into a local flower shop looking for a plant and walked out with a job offer.
The gig was too perfect to pass up: 12 hours a week, a 15-minute stroll from home in an industry that makes people happy. After years of feeling marginalized – of employers actually paying me and my boomer colleagues to get out – it felt good to be wanted again.
Little did I know that I was part of a fledgling “unretirement” trend, thanks to a tight labor market, according to experts. More than half of the 5 million people who dropped out of the labor force since the start of the pandemic are 55 or older. But now, there’s been a small uptick in the other direction, said Nick Bunker, an economic research director for Indeed, a popular employment website He attributed the “pickup” of retired people returning to work to two positive developments.
“Demand for workers is very strong right now and wage growth is fast, so formerly retired employees are seizing the opportunities a hot labor market is presenting,” he said. “Secondly, the increased vaccination rates have reduced some retired workers’ hesitancy to return to work.”
Julia Pollock, chief economist at ZipRecruiter, another jobs marketplace, agreed that the current labor shortage is good news for my demographic.
“Age discrimination is usually rampant in the workforce – especially against women and most particularly, against women of color,” she explained. “Retirees who return to the workforce now, however, are finding employers desperate for their skills and experience.”
Experience? I’ve got decades, so put me in, coach.
Still, some of my peers were surprised by my decision. Why swap this stage of life, when the three precious commodities – time, health and money have all aligned – for a humble retail job?
For starters, stumbling into this two-days-a week gig has made me more efficient on the other three. I can’t procrastinate on Tuesday (alphabetizing spices instead of writing, for example) because I have to be at work on Wednesday.
There are other unanticipated benefits, as well. After years of watching my young colleagues roll their eyes while we struggled with a barrage of new technology, my old-school skills are suddenly in demand. My boss grumbles about youngsters weaned on texting, while praising my spelling and penmanship on those little florist cards. After all, what good is sending your deepest condolences, if no one can read them?
Additionally, this next gig can be a rich learning opportunity that reflects your interests. I love flowers, but always considered myself botany-impaired. I now know that scabiosa is not a skin condition, but a vibrant blossom that can substitute for a peony and some insider tips on how to make your hydrangeas last longer. Others have honed their skills at the neighborhood hardware store or caterer.
Another selling point: For employers, I’m a bargain. No opportunity for career advancement? I don’t want to climb any ladders. No paid vacation, health insurance or other benefits? That’s OK. I don’t need them.
Best of all, I still have a front-row seat to humanity. I’ve helped people mark love and loss, births and miscarriages, illness and recovery. Who wouldn’t go the extra mile for some suitor planning to propose? Or the newly-wed husband ordering an extravagant arrangement for his wife before a “bro” trip to Minnesota? (“I may love fishing, but you’ll always be my finest catch.”) People being tender with one another seems like a perfect antidote to these troubled times.
I’m under no illusion that a minimum-wage job is enough to pay the rent, plus fill both the refrigerator and the gas tank. I understand that working a mere 12 hours a week is a luxury that many older people can’t afford. And I’m certainly not suggesting that trimming the thorns off hundreds of roses for the Valentine’s Day rush is the same rush as election night or snaring a Sunday page 1 story.
But that was my former life. For now, as I continue to search for that perfect balance between work and home, productivity and leisure, this new chapter will do just fine.
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