Smiling seniors playing golf or mah-jongg under a bright warm sun served as Americans’ dominant image of retirement 30 years ago. More recently, the vision has been of smiling retirees greeting customers in front of a Walmart.
The Sun City idyll self-destructed years ago, done in by our surprising longevity and a flawed pension system that left millions financially unprepared for their later years. Now the greeter image is fading too, even if what the position came to symbolize — low pay and mundane labor to make ends meet in old age — is more relevant than ever.
Millions of under-saved seniors still need to work. In a recent Wells Fargo survey, 74% of middle-class Americans said they expect to work in their retirement years; 25% said they expect to work at least until age 80. They’ll just have to find their opportunity somewhere other than a Walmart entrance.
This month, Walmart began relocating day-shift greeters to high-traffic areas inside the store, where they’ll have new duties. They will still be expected to greet shoppers with a smile — but also to help them find what they want and navigate crowded aisles.
Greeters worry that the changes won’t stop there. Gloria Pascale, 86, of Renton, Wash., has worked as a greeter for 15 years. She told the Associated Press she was informed that her duties would include some lifting and other activities beyond what she’s physically able to do. Walmart says that’s not the case and that no greeters have been laid off. The company says it has even lifted certain greeter duties, like preparing carts and tagging items for return.
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This change has been coming for some time. Walmart got rid of night-shift greeters several months ago. Now greeters are being removed during all shifts. Some think it’s only a matter of time before these older workers are let go.
The Walmart greeter has an iconic place in American business history. It was an idea dreamed up by founder Sam Walton in 1980. The position was first seen as an innovative way to harness economic value from seniors in need of income. A grumpy version of the Walmart greeter even enjoyed a cameo on the animated TV show Family Guy.
But over the years, the greeter’s job became identified with the troubling trend of more seniors needing a job; it came to symbolize the vaporized dream of a comfortable retirement for many Americans. That’s not Walmart’s fault. But it may be one more reason to remove greeters from the front door.