This Halloween, there's an extra supply of gray hair and wrinkles at Party City, a costume and novelty store on Route 4 in Paramus, N.J. They don't belong to costumes but to the store's work force -- seasonal hires whom manager Paul Buccola calls his "career people" -- older workers with impressive resumes who are desperate for work.
Holiday retail jobs that used to go to high school kids are being snapped up by job-seekers in their 40s and 50s. Guys with master's degrees are selling rubber noses, and counting themselves lucky to be employed, says Buccola.
Buccola says he has five such career people working for him now. How many did he have this time last year? "Zero." He calls it "a direct reflection of the economy."
Employers nationwide say they are seeing the same phenomenon: Older people, some of whom have been out of work for two years or more, are swallowing their pride and foraging any kind of jobs that they can get, part-time, seasonal or otherwise.
"It's a growing trend," says Bill Coleman, vice president of research for RetirementJobs.com, which he describes as a combination job-board and advocacy group for job seekers over 50.
Interest in part-time work, he says, "goes up as the stock market goes down. People living off their 401(k)s see the balance drop and realize they have to do something. A little supplemental income is exactly what they need."
Estimates vary for how many temporary jobs will be added to the economy this holiday season, but most agree the pie will be about the same size as last year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says it may shrink by 1 percent. That means every job taken by an older worker comes at some other job seeker's expense, including the young.
Should older workers feel guilty for shouldering aside the high school or college students? No, says Coleman, who dismisses this as an unproductive line of thought for older job seekers. "Yes, true, you're competing against high school kids. But you've got to get over that. You've got to just snap out of it," he says. "You do what you have to do to survive." He dismisses the suggestion that oldsters are taking bread out of youngsters' mouths, saying of the young, "Their parents will fill that void."
Carl van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers' Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, says, "One thing I can tell you: Workers in this climate don't agonize over who else's job they're taking. For one thing, they don't know. And for another, they just don't think about that. Why should they? It's the employer's decision." He notes that the impact of the recession has been especially hard on people over 55, who have the lowest re-employment rate of any age group.
Older workers possess attributes employers value, especially when it comes to part-time retail jobs: They're highly reliable, says van Horn, and they tend to have a better work ethic than the young. The fact that a job is temporary lessens their resentment of the fact that it is paying them a fraction of what they earned before the recession hit. "They're not going to be complaining that they're not paid enough, or that their skills aren't being used, because it's temporary," he says.