Emily Runyon

It’s summertime. You’re visiting your favorite community pool or, perhaps, a waterpark. You choose to take your family to these places because they have trained, supervised lifeguards. Sure, sometimes they are a little young, but it’s an extra layer of safety. As you dip your toe into the water, you look up to the lifeguard’s tower where you find a surprise waiting for you: In the chair, where you would normally find a tanned and lean teen or 20-something sits a woman who could easily be your own mother. She’s obviously in good shape and is keeping an eye on the water, ignoring the shocked look that you surely have on your face.

Water recreation centers around the country are embracing the “grey wave” that has come into their labor force.

A recent article from the Washington Post provides some excellent insight on this topic, but the facts it cites shouldn’t be a surprise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer teenagers are seeking employment, with only 35 percent of people 16 to 19 holding down a job. That’s down from 52 percent only 20 years ago. The jobs that have been traditionally held by teens are now being subsumed by adult workers — whether they are just trying to make ends meet or are looking for a little extra cash on the side.

If you look at the challenge from the employer side, hiring older adults to fill these positions makes good business sense. They are generally more reliable. They usually have their own transportation. They can work through a whole summer season and don’t need to quit early to return to school. Swimming is also a popular exercise method for older adults, as it is easier on the joints. This means that many older adults are capable swimmers, making them prime candidates for lifeguarding roles. This change from teens to seniors in water safety roles serves as an interesting example of how the labor market is adapting.

Today, teens and 20-somethings are being pulled in many different directions. Where once they were expected to hold down a job, now schools and recruiters are looking for a more diverse extracurricular portfolio. Sure, having a part-time job is important, but don’t forget to play at least one (if not more) sports, participate in student government, engage in some kind of educational activity (such as tutoring younger students) and more. All of these extra activities add up, leaving the student workforce both harder to engage and harder to rely on during peak times.

This is where the older adult workforce is really finding a niche. As younger workers choose to concentrate on schooling or career-building, entry-level service jobs are getting tougher to fill. Older workers are prime candidates for these positions — whether they are unskilled and trying to make it through retirement or are well-off and looking for something different to do after spending 30 years in a fast-paced career. Lifeguarding is just one avenue that Boomers and seniors are taking. At Varsity, we believe that other industries are going to start experiencing a wave of older workers. If they choose to embrace it, it could be great for business. Should they choose to ignore it, they might be drowning in their own shortsightedness.