US & Canada

Pensioners at work: The Little Old Motel Lady

Image caption The motel breakfast lady is often a senior citizen

Officially, almost all of us will stop working by our mid-sixties, and those of us lucky enough to have pensions will be able to draw them - but the reality is likely to be rather different.

Many people to continue to work well into their seventies. This army of elderly employees rarely appears on the official records and is one reason the employment statistics are less reliable than they should be.

Apparently the government economists were surprised when the so called headline jobless rate in the United States climbed back up to 9.1%.

What's going on? The answers are mixed but it is clear that one of the problems in calculating America's unemployment problems is the numbers themselves. It all depends on who you count, after all. My suspicion is that it is the official statistics are incomplete.


My evidence is what I call the Little Old Motel Lady. Over the past year I have been travelling doing research on a book. I have gone to libraries and archives all across the country and that means I have become a connoisseur of cheap motels.

Twenty-five years ago, when I started out, motels did not have restaurants and most still don't.

There might be some vending machines. They might even offer you a free cup of coffee in the morning and a stale donut. I used to travel with a jar of peanut butter and a box of crackers in my briefcase because once you hit a library you rarely have time for lunch.

Ah, but no longer. There are, according to one industry estimate 128,488 motels in America and the vast majority now offer a full breakfast for free in the lobby in the morning.

And I mean a full breakfast, cereals, juice, hot waffles, eggs, sausage and you can even wrap up a bagel to take with you to the library.

And presiding over this free motel breakfast is at least one little old motel lady. It is her job to get up at four in the morning, drive to the motel, and set up the breakfast room, get the coffee percolating, the eggs cooking, the fruit laid out and from 6am until 10am she bustles about cleaning up, refilling supplies and generally being cheery.

Then she cleans up and goes home.

Every little old motel lady I talked to over the past year has told me the same story: she'd had to retire from her old job, she lives alone, is on Social Security and Medicare, and even with her pension payments, she still needs more money than she had planned for.

So she has gone back to work for the minimum wage and if she is lucky and works for a big motel chain, she has some basic health insurance benefits too.

She confesses to being afraid of driving through the streets in the dark of night and the work is non-stop hard, but it's all she's can get and she is making the best of it.

The corollary to the Little Old Motel Lady is the Little Old Man Wal-Mart greeter, the old-timer in the blue vest who gets in your way when you go to Wal-mart or some other big discount chain and tries to tell you about the special sales when you just come in to buy a single item.

If you look for us you will see us being guards at office building security desks, collecting money at parking lots, we're the friendly voice at the catalogue sales order phone.

Tough old birds

Is this a national trend?

I don't know but I can tell you that I am 71 and I know of no-one between the ages of 65 and 75 who is not working at some job or other, and many are working full-time.

Oh, we are all getting Social Security and Medicare, and paying taxes on those benefits, thank you very much. But even those of us who saved a nest egg find we need to be working to keep pace with rising costs and those unforeseen surprises that one should have foreseen, but didn't.

My point is I don't know if the government economists are counting on, or are even aware of us, because the phenomenon of the working older citizen is fairly recent.

On the one hand, we are working at jobs that didn't exist 10 years ago and on the other hand, we are under pressure to work for less money than we used to command.

These may not be the golden years we were promised, not by a long stretch, but we are tough old birds and we are still contributing and we need to be counted.

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