Atlanta’s older workers feel the wear and tear of physical jobs

Lee Griffin’s workday usually includes seven or eight equines. As a farrier, he’s bent double much of the time, leaning over a hoof, judging how much of the structure to rasp away before nailing on a new shoe — a nail driven a hair’s breadth in the wrong direction can mean lameness, and Griffin’s charges are often high-dollar show horses.

He’s been at it for three decades now, and at 56, he now finds himself among the collection of older adults doing physical jobs in the metro Atlanta area. This population faces new challenges as bodies age and enthusiasm flags, and yet, they regularly show up, ready to work another day.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

In-person work

Physically demanding jobs don’t necessarily include rigorous exertion, according to Beth Truesdale, a research fellow at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research and co-author of “Overtime: America’s Aging Workforce and the Future of Working Longer.”

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

“If you are working in a restaurant, working retail, we don’t necessarily think of those as being physically demanding jobs, but you’re on your feet, you’re carrying, you’re moving. You’re having to lift and bend and twist all day for hours and hours,” she told the AJC. “And they’re jobs that are not only held by young people. There are a lot of older people in physically demanding jobs, too.”

As Truesdale pointed out, physical work requires an in-person presence, so increasing remote options hold little opportunity for many workers.

“The rise of remote work may really help people whose work can be done remotely,” she said. “Those people are going to be disproportionately people who have college degrees, who have desk jobs that are not physically demanding jobs … You can’t Zoom into an Amazon warehouse to pick things off the shelves. You can’t cut somebody’s hair remotely. You can’t serve tables remotely at a restaurant.”

Maximization of Social Security benefits, she said, is an incentive for many to try to continue working until age 70, but it’s not always possible.

“If you’re in favor of working longer as a policy solution, there are some really encouraging things on average that have led people to think, ‘Yeah, this is a reasonable policy solution,’” Truesdale said. “On average, people live longer than they did 50 years ago … On average, jobs are less physically demanding than they used to be, but beneath all of those averages are these enormous inequalities where a very large fraction of jobs still require an awful lot of physical demands in ways that we may not think of.”

‘You want to do your best’

Susan Douglas, 56, of Buckhead, understands well Truesdale’s definition of physical work, along with its complications. Douglas is the current president of the Atlanta Restaurant Association, but her industry experience began at 16 in the thick of things as a server in an Atlanta restaurant. She’s since used her knowledge to help numerous restaurateurs open their own establishments, but she always said ownership wasn’t for her.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

“I swore I would never own a restaurant because I was able to see from every perspective how difficult it was to own or run and be successful,” she said.

And yet, she did eventually open three of her own locations in the Atlanta area: two cafes and a food market, but by early summer of 2022, she’d closed all three, albeit with an open-ended message to customers that she’d be back at some point. The economic changes COVID-19 brought, combined with her own health complications, had hit her hard.

She visited a health clinic because of blurry vision and a headache before closing the first two establishments.

“They wanted to put me in an ambulance,” she said. “And guess what I said? ‘Let me go downstairs and close the cafe first …’ You want to do your best, and it almost killed me.”

The jigsaw of daily food runs, demanding customers, and employees in training made the job difficult from a mental health standpoint. The time away from family, Douglas said, was tough on relationships. And then, there was the physical component.

“I can go in Restaurant Depot and identify a chef, and I can almost tell you how many years he’s been in the business based on his gait — the feet, the hips, the back,” she said.

These realizations have made her consider her physical health more readily.

“I can’t work forever,” she said. “Between my feet and my hip and my patience, sometimes, they’re not in synch.”

And so, although her passion for the business still smolders, the cafes and the market remain closed — for now.

“There’s a part of me that still craves the desire to open up,” she said, “But the economy is reminding me that it doesn’t make sense.”

Devotion to the job

Griffin is no stranger to wear and tear, either. He had back surgery about six years ago.

“That’s when I really started understanding the physical aspects of this job, and if you don’t have your health, you don’t really have anything,” he said.

Maintaining a workflow and a clientele means mental stress for him, too.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

“If you don’t commit to it and stay committed, it just runs you over,” he said. “If we don’t service these people, then they don’t have any loyalty to us. They just will switch and move, and the stress and the anxiety that comes along with that is just crippling.”

He’s seen the equestrian landscape change over the years in Alpharetta, where he works most. There are more shoers now, and the horses are bigger and often more taxing to work on, owing to an increase in imported, heavy warmbloods. He’s saved steadily over the years, but like many small business owners, Griffin didn’t begin with a plan for moving on.

“It’s only hit me the last couple of years about having an exit plan and about retirement and what that kind of looks like,” he said. “It’s scary to me with the way that things are today — the economy. I don’t think you can ever put enough money back to be secure, so I think I’ll shoe horses for a very long time … hopefully, as I get older I can back off.”

For now, his devotion keeps him going.

“I don’t think I could do that kind of a job where I wasn’t around horses,” he said. “That’s my serenity.”

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