elderly working at fast food restaurants
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
December 8, 2019 ·  4 min read

Senior Citizens Are Replacing Teenagers as Fast-Food Workers

Arguably, there is nothing more American than fast food. It may be a detriment to your health, but its a part of the culture none the less. You can’t drive more than ten minutes without seeing a McDonald’s, Burger King, or Taco Bell. Perhaps the only thing as iconic as glowing golden arches is the image of the apathetic teenager behind the counter asking “would you like fries with that?”

The impassive teenager begrudgingly flipping patties or taking orders at the drive-through has become a cultural phenomenon. So much so, that countless films have been made that feature American teens in these roles.
But over the last several years, we have seen a shift in the “classic” fast-food workforce. Instead of a sullen teen, we’re seeing… senior citizens. According to a Bloomberg report, restaurants across the country are actively recruiting older people instead of the usual younger workforce [1].

A Changing Workforce

The fast-food industry employs over 3.7 million people across the country [2] and generates over $250 billion every year [3].

According to the United States Bureau of Labour Statistics, the percentage of workers between the ages of 16 and 24 has decreased by about 3.6% in the last twenty years [4]. Conversely, the percentage of workers aged 55 and older has increased by eight percent [4]. 

As Bloomberg reported, many of these older workers are showing up behind the counters of fast-food restaurants [1].

Why Are Retirees Going Back to Work?

Traditionally, retirement is a time when people put down their briefcases, step away from the assembly line, and swap their morning commute for a sunrise round of golf. So what gives?

Financial: People are living longer, which is great, but it comes with a catch. The longer you live, the more money you need to support yourself into retirement. Previous generations relied on company-sponsored pension and health plans for this, many of these guaranteed lifetime pensions have now been replaced with 401(k) plans. These plans are not adequate for millions of Americans, which has forced older people to look for work after retirement [5].

Emotional: After working their entire lives, many older people are not fully prepared for what it will be like to no longer be working. Many become bored, lonely, and some even develop depression.

Michelle Wallace of Broomfield, Colorado, returned to work after barely two years of retirement. “I felt like I was free-floating, bobbing along on the ocean,” she said. “I felt very ungrounded.” She said. Even her friends noticed she was becoming more reclusive; her doctor increased her anti-depressants [6].

For many older people and retirees, returning to work gives them a sense of purpose, gets them out of the house and allows them the opportunity for social interaction.

Why Do Employers Want to Hire Retirees?

Hiring an older workforce is a great deal for fast-food chains: instead of hiring a young person with no work experience, for the same cost they can hire an older adult who has an entire career under their belt [1].

Older employees are also good for these chains because their goals are different. Where a younger employee may be looking to move up to a management role or to simply make more money, many of the older employees are happy to stay at the level and pay grade they are at [1].

Not only are they inexpensive, but the truth is they are simply better employees. The district manager of Pita Pit in Colorado Springs is a huge proponent of hiring seniors:

“There’s nothing wrong with kids, but it just seems that nowadays…the whole millennial thing, there’s very few of them that have good work ethics,” she explained.

Older adults typically have better-developed social skills than teenagers, and it shows at work. Stevenson Williams, a retiree who now manages a Church’s Chicken in North Charleston, often has to coach his younger co-workers on how to interact with customers.

“A lot of times with the younger kids now, they can be very disrespectful,” he says. “So you have to coach them and tell them this is your job…” [1]

A Welcomed Change of Pace

While many retired people return to work for financial reasons, some are simply looking for something to do. RAND senior economist Dr. Kathleen Mullen explains:

“Younger workers need the paycheck,” Dr. Mullen said. “Older job seekers look for more autonomy, control over the pace of work.” [6]

For many, returning to work on a part-time basis adds value to their lives, gives them a reason to get up in the morning and an opportunity to meet new people. The easier schedule and the less-demanding job aspects are enjoyable for someone who has spent the last thirty to forty years working forty hours per week. 

Tony Vartanian-Heifner is a former school teacher who now works part-time at a restaurant in Missouri, and genuinely likes the change of pace. 

“I enjoy the social part of it,” she says. “I think I’m going to work for at least five more years.” [1]

As for the teenagers? It is probably best to take a page out of your older coworkers’ book. Put down the phone and try to enjoy the interactions you make on the job. It may be minimum wage, but it can certainly lend maximum experience.

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