Five days a week, Max Gumbert drives up to the 95,000-square-foot Home Depot store in this leafy suburb at the northern edge of Silicon Valley, straps on an orange apron sagging with customer service badges and gets to work.
For eight hours every day, in a shift that often ends at 10:30 p.m., the flooring specialist answers questions: Hardwood or laminate? Ceramic tile or sandstone? Nylon or wool? Pergo or bamboo? Does cork absorb sound better than carpet?
But it is Gumbert’s presence here on the sales floor, with his cardigan and courtly manner, that answers a crucial question perplexing demographers and policy experts: If you are 65 years old or more and you’re still working in America today, what are you most likely to be doing?
Gumbert is 67, terrified of retirement and happy to go to work every day in the industry that employs more older Americans than any other: retail. Nearly 350,000 men and women 65 or older earn paychecks in the nation’s stores, according to a report scheduled for release in June.
In recent years, the question of exactly where older workers were employed has baffled those who have seen conflicting trends ripple through the nation’s job sites: More older Americans say they want or need to work past traditional retirement age, but employers are still reluctant to retain or hire them.
One result is that there has been little solid information about where people beyond the average retirement age of 63 work in greatest numbers, a critical issue especially now as benefits shrink and recession looms.
But statistics from the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research group based in Washington, show for the first time that those 65 or older and still working in America are statistically most likely to do retail, farming or janitorial work, in that order.
In fact, the nation’s stores employ more people 65 and over than the next two occupations combined, which worries some advocates who are trying to encourage the federal government, the country’s biggest corporations and other employers to keep older workers on the payroll.
“These are not exactly the pictures of reinvention that you get in your monthly issue of Fortune, Money or AARP magazine,” said Marc Freedman, author of “Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life.” This is “an object lesson in the dangers of what could happen if we don’t develop a compelling human resource strategy for an aging society.”
But though Freedman worries that “the golden years are being transformed into the Wal-Mart decade,” he does acknowledge that the retail industry provides benefits, flexibility and jobs, particularly for less-educated workers.
And there are few places better than this big-box store halfway between San Francisco and San Jose to see the effect of older employees in the workplace and few guides better than Gumbert and his colleagues.
Home Depot will not divulge complete statistics on how many older workers stride the concrete floors of its huge home-improvement stores, but the number is on the rise. The company hooked up with AARP four years ago to woo a sales force that might otherwise be golfing and says it now has 5,000 employees over 70.
They are loyal and dependable, said Tim Crow, chief human resources officer for the Atlanta-based firm. “We look at the demographics, and everyone is getting older. This is the future workforce.”
In San Carlos, nearly a score of the 200-plus employees are 60 and over, from Irene Goble, 61, whose quarter-century as a bartender left retirement an unaffordable luxury -- “I’m gonna be here till I’m 70 in my walker” -- to Coy Deal, 72, a former Silicon Valley electrical engineer who was laid off in his late 60s.
Their reasons for regularly punching the time clock in the locker-lined employee break room include “have to,” “want to” and everything in between.
Gumbert would place himself in the middle of that spectrum, a German-accented mix of need and desire. Gumbert spent most of his work life in the hotel industry, rising from waiter to director of food, beverages and catering at venues such as the San Francisco Hilton.
But by the time he hit his early 50s, the wear and tear were beginning to show. The days stretched to 18 hours. The phone would ring in the middle of the night. Contemporaries began having heart attacks and worse.
Gumbert switched to restaurant work, then left the hospitality field “cold turkey” in search of a job at which he could “punch in and punch out. I don’t want to be called at 2 in the morning.”
A newspaper ad led him to the company formerly known as Color Tile. When it went belly up, he landed at Home Depot. Nearly 11 years later he is still here in the San Carlos store, cutting carpet swatches, calling customers to cement deals, guiding do-it-your-selfers through the complexities of home renovation.
“I draw Social Security checks, but it goes right into the bank,” he says, as does a small pension from his decade at Hilton Hotels Corp. “I’m not dependent on it right now, but who knows what the future brings? It’s my nest egg. When I was younger, I wasn’t the saving type.”
Gumbert’s current soapbox is the future of Social Security and the legislators he blames for poking holes in that safety net. He thinks everyone should see Michael Moore’s “Sicko,” an eye-opener about the state of the American healthcare system. He is an ardent fan of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.
“I’m scared to retire,” he says after weighing bamboo’s eco-friendly attributes against the ease with which it can be scratched for a well-tanned man in a Hawaiian shirt. “I like to travel; I couldn’t afford to.
“Eventually I think I’ll have to retire,” Gumbert acknowledges. “When I’m 90 I don’t think I’ll be selling flooring. But why not? You never know. At least I don’t feel my age.”
Gumbert and Deal -- the 72-year-old former electrical engineer -- are walking, hawking proof of another sobering statistic.
In a separate study scheduled for release later this year, the Urban Institute found that 43% of people working full time in their early 50s will change jobs before their late 60s. More than a quarter of those fiftysomething full-time workers will enter a new occupation. Nearly one in four will be laid off.
“Older people really need to prepare for a work life of change,” said Richard Johnson, a principal researcher on both studies. “There’s a real strong possibility that you’ll lose your job, and you’re going to have to go out and find another one.”
That’s exactly what happened to Deal, a slender man with bright blue eyes who worries that he will last longer than his savings. The former engineer worked for various software companies in the Silicon Valley. One went bankrupt and was bought out by another, then that one got into serious trouble.
“I was actually let go with the reduction in force,” Deal said. “I was in my 60s. I went out on unemployment. I put out 100 or more resumes. Most people want to hire some young kid out of school so they can pay them next to nothing. I gave up after I ran out of unemployment.”
He went to work with his son, an electrician, and hired on at Home Depot about nearly a year ago. Deal works 16 to 32 hours a week. He wishes the pay were better -- he earns a little over the minimum wage -- but he’ll keep at it “until I really can’t push myself.”
And then there’s James Lunsford, who turns 65 on Memorial Day, a Dennis Farina doppelganger with a pilot’s license and a taste for fancy cars. Tall and athletic, he still looks like the firefighter he used to be, a couple of careers ago.
These days, the licensed contractor works about 50 hours a week and splits his time 50-50 between Home Depot and Echo Electric, the San Mateo electrical and construction company he owns with his wife, Sherri.
Lunsford is part of Home Depot’s recently launched “master trade specialist” program, an effort to recruit skilled craftsmen with expertise in areas such as electrical work and plumbing. The pay is higher, and the specialists tend to be older than the basic sales force.
One recent Friday morning, Lunsford clambered up the packed shelves looking for the right gauge wire for Bill Hoy, an Atherton pool contractor installing an automatic gate opener.
He led a customer to the cat-door aisle, helped an elderly man read the wattage on a lightbulb that needed to be replaced and brainstormed with a builder whose solar light blinked on and off unbidden.
He and his wife could retire tomorrow, but the idea of not working bores him senseless. Most of his Home Depot check goes into the company 401(k) plan; the rest “pays for some of my toys.” He is not here, he says, for the money.
“People here thank me. I don’t think I’ve gotten one thank-you card for the over 6,000 homes I’ve wired,” he said. “And when I come through that door, it’s show time.”