STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's time to start over. The economy is finally growing, employment is increasing, and we've been focusing on people starting over, finding new ways to move forward in their lives and careers. We've all been told of course that the employment picture in this country is changing, that the old notion of having a secure job for 40 years and retiring is going away, that we all need to be more flexible than our parents or grandparents. That's what we've been told. But NPR's Kelly McEvers has been finding something different in data that illuminate the employment picture. And, Kelly, what's different?
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Well, the news here is basically the comparison between generations and how we have jobs over time. I mean, we all know that we have a lot of jobs when we're young, right? I know I had a lot of jobs before I got this one. I actually did a callout on Facebook to my friends who are in my generation and got an amazing response. People sent in all the lists of all the jobs that they'd had. Let's listen to a few.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Corn de-tassler, babysitter, can-can dancer, cafe manager, beer slinger at a racetrack.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Newspaper delivery boy, a bus boy, and I did odd jobs for an old lady down the street.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Cleaning lady, pot trimmer, dog walker, care provider, online content producer.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Errand boy on a used car lot, a McDonald's cook, a UPS driver, a bartender, a cellphone salesman.
INSKEEP: Wow. What an incredible variety. These are people - what? - in their 30s and 40s, you're saying, Kelly?
MCEVERS: Right, basically generation X. And so we all think, right, this generation, we do a lot more jobs than the previous generation. That's sort of the idea, but it turns out the Bureau of Labor Statistics have done some longitudinal studies looking at - actually the baby boom generation, and they've found that they actually hold a lot of jobs, too, between 10 and 11 jobs on average before the age of 46.
So it looks like the trend is a little different than what we thought. What actually is happening is you have a lot of jobs when you're young, then you kind of settle into a job when you're a little bit older, and then you kind of stick with that job, unless of course something strange happens - right? - something like a recession or an injury. We actually looked at some data from the AARP Public Policy Institute, and they found that over the past year, more than a million people over the age of 55 became employed.
INSKEEP: OK. So what has the employment picture really felt like then for older Americans, people who are baby boomers or greatest generation?
MCEVERS: Well, so, I wanted to answer that question, too. So I did another callout, this time to the millions of people who follow NPR on Facebook, and I asked for people in this older generation to talk about if they changed jobs this year. I got amazing responses again - a consultant turned ornithologist, a teacher who's now repairing antiques, and - my personal favorite - a church administrator who's starting a five-piece Pat Benatar cover band. And then there was an email from a guy named Wayne, and he told me about his mom, Kelly Stancill, and how she just started a whole new career at this nail salon in Concord, N.C.
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MCEVERS: Our colleague Marshall Terry from member station WFAE went to see her.
KELLY STANCILL: Hello.
MARSHALL TERRY, BYLINE: Hi. I'm here from NPR.
MCEVERS: It was Kelly Stancill's second day of work, her third client of the day.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: And take that polish off 'cause it's nasty.
STANCILL: Yeah. I'll take the polish off, fill it in. And you want some of the length off, right?
MCEVERS: The client has nail extensions called gel nails and wants them redone. Kelly has never done gel nails before. She uses a buffer machine to try to take them off.
STANCILL: I'm nervous.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Don't be.
MCEVERS: Kelly works on the nails for a while. While she does that, let's go back to the early '80s. Kelly was young and like most of us, did a few different jobs. She worked at a factory sewing socks and pantyhose, she graduated, had two kids, and in 1989, got a job in a plastics factory.
STANCILL: When I first started, we done all of airplane parts.
MCEVERS: Like food trays, oxygen masks - basically anything that's plastic in a plane. Then she moved up to boat motor parts, after that, big heavy parts of MRI machines. Then, in 2002, her back started to hurt.
STANCILL: It was like every other week my back would be going out where I couldn't - I just couldn't walk. I mean, my husband was actually carrying me to the chiropractor just to get me back where I could stand up.
MCEVERS: Kelly had a deteriorated disc on her lower spine. Surgeons put a metal cage around the disc. Kelly recovered and went back to work. At first, someone else did the heavy lifting, but then Kelly did it herself - really heavy pieces, four days a week, 10 hours a day. She was happy to be working, but her back still hurt a lot. She wondered if maybe she should quit.
STANCILL: You know, and I thought about quitting a lot, but I thought, well, I mean, I don't know how to do anything else. This is all I've done all my life, you know?
MCEVERS: Kelly's daughter Autumn owns a salon. Her son Wayne had an idea. Maybe Kelly should go to cosmetology school and work in the salon.
STANCILL: And when Wayne told me, you know, he said, Mama, all you have to do is go. I've paid for it. I've ordered your books. All you have to do is show up, just show up.
MCEVERS: She hemmed and hawed for a while, then last fall, she quit the factory, lost her paycheck, lost her health insurance and went back to school. She got good grades, passed the board exam and now has her license.
STANCILL: I got some good polish.
MCEVERS: Each manicure pays $30. She won't have to pay rent at the salon for a while. But still, she and her husband, who does remodeling, are behind on the bills. Kelly says she wishes she'd saved money first and then quit. But then maybe she wouldn't have quit. She says making a big change like this is hard at her age. She knows she's lucky to have help from her kids. Now, back to the client with the gel nails.
STANCILL: I mean, I'm really sorry. I just haven't dealt - I've polished the gel nails, but as far as the fill-ins, you know, I mean, I've just not done it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Honey, I understand.
MCEVERS: Kelly says she doesn't think she can do the job. She sends the woman to another salon.
STANCILL: I am very sorry.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Don't worry.
STANCILL: I am. I feel terrible.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: No. I'm just going to get in my little car and ride down there and get them done.
MCEVERS: Come back again, Kelly tells the client. I'll learn how to do gel nails.
INSKEEP: Kelly McEvers, I'm getting a sense that this has been the story of America for very long time, people constantly reaching for new things whether they want to or not with all the joy and the pain that can provide.
MCEVERS: Well, especially since the recession, right? We know Kelly isn't the norm. This longitudinal data shows that we hold a job for long time. But now, yeah, we have to change. Kelly said this really interesting thing to me. She says, you know, I'm 51 years old, and it's the oldest I've ever been. She says it's not been easy to make a change, but she's going to stick with it.
INSKEEP: NPR's Kelly McEvers. Thanks very much as always.
MCEVERS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.