Seasonal seniors

America's new migrant workforce drives RVs - and brushes aside the notion of retirement

When the National Interagency Fire Center calls from Boise, Idaho, this summer, Roger Morris will be ready to go. So will his wife, Pat. They've worked plenty of forest fires - from California to Colorado, Nevada to Montana - over the past few years. They're part of the teams that staff fire camps, providing such crucial support services as food and fresh water to the men and women fighting fires.

It's not the kind of work Mr. Morris expected to be doing when he retired from the military several years ago. But then again, neither was selling Christmas trees near San Francisco, picking apples in Washington, or taking care of a private campground in South Dakota.

Those are just a few of the jobs the Morrises have taken since hitting the road full-time in an RV nine years ago. Along the way, they've also become part of a booming American counterculture that has given rise to a new kind of migrant worker: senior citizens who roam the nation's highways and byways, taking on seasonal jobs everywhere from California to Tennessee, and from Alaska to Florida.

"Our last child left home in 1992. She said, 'It's time for me to go,' " says Mr. Morris. "And we said, 'Well, it's time for us to go, too.' "

Currently, the Morrises have parked their RV on a piece of land outside Santa Barbara, Calif. It's been specially leased for them by their employer, AAA Mobile Showers, which contracts with the federal government to provide shower services for fire camps.

The Morrises keep their bags packed and ready to go, as specifically required by the government contract; when the call to work comes, they will leave their RV behind and head straight to the fire camp.

"Our lifestyle has been laid back, nonstressful, and interesting," he says. "Sometimes it's challenging, but it's really just a lot of fun."

Redefining retirement

No one has exact figures, but some estimates put the number of senior citizens who travel and work in RVs for part or all of the year, at around 750,000. These seniors are, in essence, forging their own alternative lifestyle, complete with support networks - from RV associations to magazines and Internet sites that post job listings targeted at their age group.

In the process, these older Americans are helping redefine retirement - and what retirees want from it.

"I think we make some assumptions about retirees: that they're set in their ways, that they're not open to new ideas, that they're not creative, that they don't take risks. Well, that's an old image," says Helen Dennis, a lecturer in aging and business at the USC School of Gerontology. "What these people are doing explodes those myths. This is a new millennium."

Increasingly, these older, mobile workers are being sought out by employers across the country, who say they value these employees because they bring to their work experience, stability, commitment, and a strong work ethic.

Among those employers targeting seniors are guest ranches, theme parks, traveling fair contractors, private campgrounds, public parks, and tour operators. In addition to salaries of $6 or $7 an hour, they offer perks, such as free, or extremely inexpensive, RV hook-ups, including all utilities; free guest passes to area attractions; special events, such as picnics; and extra incentives, such as gas money, for working an extended contract.

"We can teach any of them to do the jobs that need to be done," says Steve Anderson, the director of human resources at Adventureland theme park, near Des Moines, Iowa. 'It's the people skills they bring that's so important. And their work ethic, which is definitely from the old school, not from the new one."

Mr. Anderson caught on early to the seasonal work trend, which is also called "work camping." In 1990, an older summer employee told him about a magazine called Workamper News, which caters to seniors living the RV life.

He began advertising and actively recruiting senior citizens, traveling to RV shows across the country to let people know about job opportunities at Adventureland.

His efforts have paid off: From just a few traveling senior citizen employees in 1990, his workforce has grown to include more than 200 this year, approximately 30 percent of park's staff. This year, his oldest workers are 81 and 79 years old.

"They've become mentors for our young people," says Anderson. "Our guests tell us they enjoy seeing older people running the equipment and strapping children into rides. Some of them call it the grandparent approach."

Other employees cite a reliability factor. "[Senior workers] know customer service as well as anyone could ever explain it. They give five-star customer service," says Karen Poppe, who's in charge of hiring at Wall Drugs in Wall, South Dakota. "We really count on them. They add a lot of stability to what we do."

John Szekley, in his eighth year at Wall Drugs, is also in his tenth year of full-time work camping. "I got tired of the rat race," he says, referring to the days when he lived in Anaheim, Calif. "This is like coming back to family," Mr. Szekley says of the store and the town of 800 people.

His advice to anyone contemplating the rolling work life: "Don't wait. I started when I was 50 years old, and I wish I'd started sooner. It's a less stressful life."

For some senior citizens, seasonal work is a way to supplement their Social Security income. For others, it's a way to cut costs while traveling to places they've always wanted to visit. For many, the work is pure pleasure - a way to enjoy life, make new friends, and see the world.

The amusement park shuttle

After working and raising a family near Buffalo, N.Y., Ray and Linda Grassman retired four years ago to full-time life in their RV, which is equipped with a computer, microwave, satellite TV, air conditioning, a bedroom, bathroom, and a couch that converts into a bed to accommodate guests.

The couple started out just traveling, but soon learned of work opportunities through friends. They now divide their year between working at Disneyworld in Orlando, Fla., and Dollywood, the Dolly Parton theme park near Marysville, Tenn., where more than 100 senior work campers are working this summer.

"If it's a fun job, that's what we want," says Ms. Grassman, who's working in a Dollywood restaurant, where she says she loves interacting with the public. The best part of the lifestyle she and her husband now lead, she says, is "being free to do what we want to do."

"We can go where we want to go, when we want to go," she says. "If somebody tells us about someplace interesting, we say OK, we'll go. We don't have to wait until next year's vacation, or even until the weekend. We just go."

Like the Grassmans, many working RV seniors plan for a few years before hitting the road, so that when the time came, they were ready to sell their home, give up some of their possessions, and adapt to a new lifestyle.

But other seasonal workers find it hard to be mobile all the time. Katie and Rob Niver did sell their home - but chose to settle into a double-wide trailer (a kind of pre-fab home) instead of hitting the road.

The Nivers, however, still roam for work: During the winter they work at Disneyworld, which is near their home, and in the summer they work as official greeters at a guest ranch about 85 miles from Laramie, Wyo.

"We probably won't do the full-time thing, because I wouldn't know what to do with all my stuff," she confesses. "I'm attached to so many things. That's really what's stopping me."

Not always working for wages

Other seasonal workers do mainly volunteer work - generally serving as hosts and guides at public parks and campgrounds around the country, often filling an urgent need for help in parks that rely on volunteers.

"We couldn't run the parks without them," says Linda Lopez, who runs the host program for the state of Oregon, which has 57 campground parks staffed by volunteers. The program began in 1979 with 25 to 30 volunteers. Last year, she says, some 2,800 volunteers put in 170,000 hours of service. Of all those volunteer workers, some 75 percent were senior citizens.

Doris Russell and her husband, James, have been volunteering as guides at Oregon's Coquille River Lighthouse, a state site, for the past five years. Originally from a town just 12 miles away, they are now full-time RVers.

In exchange for a free hook-up for their RV, they help maintain the campground and also give tours of the lighthouse.

"I think it's just a great opportunity to tell people about your country, and why you should be so proud of it," says Ms. Russell. "One reason we like the lighthouse is there's so much history here. And working here gives us a chance to intertwine with people who travel across the country and don't know anything about this part of the world.

"We're pretty much people people," she says. "So this is fun for us."

Although the growth in senior citizen seasonal workers has so far been a largely undocumented phenomenon, the trend is expected to grow among those who know anything about it.

"Since the day we started, the trend has been growth, steady growth," says Greg Robus, editor of Workamper News, which he launched in 1987. Employers, he says, are finding out about the senior market by word of mouth.

Disney, Dollywood, and Six Flags, he says, are examples of theme parks that have contacted the magazine after hearing from seasonal senior workers.

Also, say experts in aging, as baby boomers swell the ranks of America's retiree population, they will also help popularize the new lifestyles and workstyles already embraced by senior citizens now out on the road.

Among these workers, the definition of retirement has already changed - from an age of quiet decline to an age of learning and new experience. "I always thought that when you retired you got out the rocking chair, sat on the porch, and waited 'til it was your time to go," says Ray Grassman. "Now I've got too many things to do. I'm not going anyplace."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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