I’m a regular at the Lowe’s store on West Central Avenue and have gotten to know customer service specialist Helen Perkins, who has been at the store since it opened 21 years ago. She is always friendly, energetic, helpful—and I found out recently that she’s also 83!
So, with Labor Day just past, it seems appropriate to take a look at the national trend that Helen is a part of. In short, it seems fewer Americans want to work anymore—with two exceptions: older workers and younger kids.
Today, the nation has 9.8 million job openings but only 5.9 million unemployed workers to fill them. Employers of every size and industry report they face unprecedented hiring challenges. Coming to the rescue: increasing numbers of retirees re-entering the workforce. They are on the job to supplement retirement income, or because they just like it. That would include my Lowe’s friend, Helen.
“Work is just something I’ve been doing since I was 15 so it’s just a thing that makes me feel better—to have something to do. I find it exhilarating as far as meeting people, being around people. And it also keeps my mind active and my body physically moving around,” she told me.
Helen worked in corporate America for more than 40 years in banking, at a Fortune 500 corporation, and several law firms. “I’m not here for the money. I can retire … but work is just in me. I want to be moving around and with people. I laugh a lot and have fun here,” she said. “Lowe’s has been unbelievably supportive—giving the time I needed when I lost my husband, helping me with hours that are convenient.”
“There are two other women at the store over the age of 70, too. We laugh a lot and call ourselves the Golden Girls,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “Older workers are very dependable. We may not be the fastest stars in the galaxy, but we are certainly the most consistent.”
On the other side of that generation galaxy is a second age group that gets satisfaction from paid work: kids under the age of 14. They are too young for traditional jobs, but they have energy, creativity, and (often) endless time to pursue a for-profit project. Experts say that earning money at an early age fosters responsibility, a work ethic, and healthier financial habits later in life. Parents add that it also keeps the offspring occupied and engaged.
That’s why Sarah Bohland stood by smiling as she watched her two sons selling lemonade to a crowd of Lincoln Woods neighbors on one of the first nice afternoons of summer. Business was brisk. Eight-year-old Eli was in charge as the “big boss” as his younger brother Henry filled orders. Eli said the beverage stand will help him save up for a gaming computer. It was his first business venture, and he hoped to make $30 by the end of the day.
“It’s just nice for them to get outside and do something active,” Sarah said, “It also teaches them responsibility … that an adult business person would have to take expenses out of the $50 that he ended up making.”
Across town a few weeks later, in the Waterford Village subdivision, commerce was also being conducted by 11-year-old sixth graders Eden Luring and Matilda Cherry, who sold homemade jewelry from a card table set up near the sidewalk in front of Matilda’s house.
“We decided to start a business to get some money,” Eden told me. “We used a kit to make bracelets and rings, then decorated a money jar and a bin to show what we were selling, and made some posters and a banner.”
“We used different colors to match the personalities of people—pink, black, blue. We made them in different sizes, and they are stretchy enough that all people can wear them,” added Matilda. They even named their enterprise: Tilden Bracelets (a mash-up of their first names: Tilly and Eden), she said.
A steady stream of walk-up and drive-by customers stopped by during business hours on two separate days, and the young women nearly sold out their 15-item inventory. “I was surprised because I didn’t think a lot of people would buy them … I felt a lot of people could make their own. But I guess we had an original idea for our bracelets and that’s why people wanted them,” Matilda said.
Eden said they defaulted to the outdoor stand after first trying to sell the merchandise online—an approach they are still working on. Meantime, jewelry was not their only summer venture: they also sold lemonade from the back of a truck owned by Matilda’s dad. And on another weekend Eden created a play area she called “Fossil Park” where neighbors could come in and look at fossils and buy food. “We sold tickets to get in so we actually made a lot of money from that,” she explained.
Hearing this, I imagine how much guidance and experience Helen’s generation of older workers could share with this entrepreneurial pre-teen generation. Maybe that’s a role grandparents or other elders will fill. Yet when I ask the owners of Tilden Bracelets what they learned from their summer on the job, it sounds like they acquired some wisdom already.
“Advertise a lot and try your very best to make a good product,” said Eden. “Be patient and stay on track. You never know when your business will become really good,” added Matilda. Then she closed our conversation by channeling her inner Helen: “Thank you for coming. Have a great day!”
Longtime Sylvania resident Mark Luetke has served on city council, the board of education, and numerous foundation and community boards.