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Why your favorite barista looks like your grandma

More and more older workers are working alongside younger ones in entry-level, part-time jobs.

By Hattie Bernstein

The coffee bar at Central Cafe + Restaurant is bright and clean, and so narrow that the servers must move sideways as they slide past each other.

This raw and rainy Friday morning in Newton, Massachusetts, Faye Goldman, whose smooth skin, camo jeans, and big eyeglasses belie her 60 years, is standing behind the POS (point of sale) terminal, greeting customers, leaning in for kisses on the cheek, delivering one warm smile after another.

“Two peppermint mochas, one large, one medium,” she calls out and repeats, a habit she developed to ensure that she never forgets an order. 

Traditionally, jobs like Goldman’s — baristas, fast food workers, retail associates — have been the domain of younger people. But thanks to a combination of a dramatic dip in teen employment, a surging job market, and eroding financial security for many elderly people, employers are looking more and more to would-be retirees to fill entry level, part-time jobs. Roughly one in five adults over 65 is now working, and their ranks have more than doubled since the turn of the century.

The abundance of piercings and tattoos shocked her. Their slang was unintelligible. Some of their fashion choices were baffling.

In 2000, “about 4.2 million persons aged 65+ were employed,” writes Paul Harrington, a labor economist and professor at Drexel University, in an email. “Today that number is 9.6 million. [In] 2000, we had about 7.2 million teens working. Today [it’s] about 5.1 million.”

For many older workers, a full-time or part-time job is an economic necessity. For others who may not need the money, however, working during the pre-retirement and retirement years can bring fulfillment and community. Goldman, for example, is an empty nester who took a job at the now-defunct Peet’s coffee shop located across the street from Central in the fall of 2008, after the youngest of her two daughters left for college.

“I didn’t have anything to do,” says Goldman, who spent more than two decades as a stay-at-home mother, raising her daughters and supporting her husband’s medical career through several cross-country moves. 

Initially, she had expected to follow in her own mother’s footsteps and slow down a little after the kids left home. She even joked about sitting on the couch all day watching television and eating bonbons.

But with her house empty and quiet, she was soon hungry for company. “I live a block and a half away, so I walked over to Peet’s, filled out an application, and had an interview. Two days later I had a job,” she says.

As a barista, and later shift manager and assistant manager, Goldman laughed and cried with her customers and co-workers, kept confidences, and shared her own, including a breast cancer diagnosis about seven years ago. Her younger colleagues affectionately called her “mama.”

After Peet’s closed this past July, Goldman and a handful of her colleagues started working across the street at Central, where she clocks about 30 hours a week.

“Working with young people gives me energy,” she says. “I want to move as fast as they move. Sometimes they offer to do things for me, but most of the time I refuse. I never want to be a slacker.”

Multiple generations working and learning from each other — from farms and factories to cubicles — has a long history. That intergenerational mingling has reached new heights in today’s workforce; now, an unprecedented five generations work side by side, says Susan Weinstock, AARP’s vice president for financial resilience programming. 

Still, stereotypes persist: older workers hewing to authority and hierarchies; younger ones wanting to do their own thing; conflict filling the divide between. There are certainly vast generational differences between Goldman and her teen and twenty-something colleagues. When she first started at Peet’s, the abundance of piercings and tattoos shocked her. Their slang was unintelligible. Some of their fashion choices were baffling.

But age has little, if any, bearing on who does what, nor does being older equal authority, says Ben Ryu, a 24-year-old manager who came to Central from Peet’s. Goldman may be the mother hen. But here, there’s no pecking order. 

“If Faye needs help with something, I’ll help. If I need help, I’ll ask,” he says. “How society talks about age groups, struggles in the workplace, for us, it hasn’t ever been that way.”

Recent research also bucks the idea that different age groups can’t work well together. Weinstock at AARP points to a series of German studiesStudies appeared in these academic journals: Human Resource Management Journal (2013); Personnel Psychology (2014); Labour Economics (2013); Journal of Applied Psychology (2008). conducted between 2008 and 2013, which found that age diversity in the workplace can improve a company’s performance, boost employee productivity, and reduce turnover. It also enriches creativity and decision-making.

And programs are cropping up to tap the potential of those relationships. Now in its first year, the University of Minnesota Advanced Careers Initiative (UMAC), brings older adults who are transitioning or slowing down their careers into classrooms and campus activities, having them learn alongside and mentor UM students. Founding director Phyllis Moen, a sociologist who studies aging and work, says many students were initially wary. In one class, one wondered aloud, “what are all these old people doing here?”

But Moen says that despite the years that separated them, the mentors and mentees found a lot of common ground. Both were in a life stage that involved juggling flexible jobs and other commitments, like school or caregiving for older relatives. Both faced some uncertainty about their financial futures.

“It’s positive on both sides,” says Moen. “Boomers say it makes them feel 20 years younger instantly.”

Twenty-one-year-old Isabella Briceno, a college student studying business who also worked with Goldman at Peet’s and followed her to Central, says she’s learning “soft skills” from her older colleague, like how to stay calm under pressure, thinking critically to solve problems, and how to better empathize and collaborate. None of that has been covered in her business classes or textbooks.

When Briceno was first hired at Peet’s, she admits, she was wary of Goldman, worried that her age and long tenure at the coffee shop might make her unaccommodating, even standoffish. But Goldman, warm and welcoming, quickly became a friend. “She was different [than I expected] in the best possible way,” Briceno says.

By 3 p.m., the staff is readying the space for the evening dinner service. The pastry case has been emptied, and several hundred lattes, teas, and espressos have been served.

There’s more cleaning and organizing to do, a few more customers to serve, and a checklist that includes moving coffee pots, mugs, and paper cups into a storage area and carrying the pastry case and coffee bean racks downstairs.

Goldman is still greeting customers, taking orders, and making more entries in the point-of-sale terminal. If she’s tired, it doesn’t show.

“For me, it’s just pure fun,” she says.

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Hattie Bernstein is a writer based in Boston. 


Illustration by Cristina Spanò


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