“In these days, when darkness falls early … People rush home … to the ones they love; You better take a fool’s advice … and take care of your own; ‘Cause one day they’re here … and the next day they’re gone.” —from "In a New York Minute," as performed by Don Henley

During a rare fast food stop amidst a whirlwind day of holiday shopping, we waited while a gray-haired, elderly woman carried our order to us in the drive-thru lane. The woman was thin, almost brittle, but very attentive to her duties.

Though it was a chilly day, she stood patiently next to us as we quickly checked the order. The food was still hot and the order was exactly correct. She seemed pleased that we were well served.

I reached into my purse and found a bill and handed it toward her. She stepped back, raised her hand, and said, "Oh no, this is part of my job." I pushed the bill at her. "I know," I said, "but we appreciate you, and besides, it’s Christmas.” Tentatively, she accepted the tip. Then she said, "Thank you so much. It's a wonderful gesture." She was genuinely grateful. I smiled and said, “Happy holidays.”

All around us, every day, our peers labor in similar fashion. It is more than pathos; it is the new paradigm of American retirement. Few 70 year-olds working this type of service industry job envisioned that their golden years would include delivering fast food orders to people parked in drive-thru lanes. But according to a 2017 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost 10 percent of fast food workers are 65 or older. And the median age of fast food workers has climbed to 31.5.

To be sure, it is honorable and honest work. And I applaud anyone who performs a necessary and legal function in our economy. That said, it may not be the type of activity we picture for ourselves, our relatives or our friends at that age. For many, it may be the only job that they can get, or one would surmise they might be employed elsewhere. So what does that say about our economy?

It says that higher education and constant retraining is a vital requirement of competing successfully in the job market for workers of all ages. It says that livable pensions are rapidly disappearing. It probably says that many of us haven’t saved enough. And it speaks to a broader economic issue. Every senior holding a fast food job is likely competing with a young person for the same position. That creates more unemployed youth who need to work and to begin paying into the Social Security system so they can earn their own retirement benefits years from now.

Margaret R. McDowell, ChFC, AIF, author of the syndicated economic column "Arbor Outlook," is the founder of Arbor Wealth Management, LLC, (850-608-6121 — www.arborwealth.net), a “fee-only” registered investment advisory firm located near Sandestin.