Karen Meyer has carved out a frugal life for herself. She doesn't own a car, lives simply and keeps a lid on expenses -- although she delights in splurging on her two granddaughters.

At 66, she isn't even close to thinking about retirement.

"I don't have a nest egg, and I'm alone," she said.

For nearly a year, Meyer has worked part-time at Wonderment, a specialty toy store in southwest Minneapolis. Amid all-natural toys, educational books and an atmosphere that encourages its pint-sized customers to try out the merchandise, Meyer is working in her dream job. But, like millions of Americans, she also needs the paycheck.

Some 5.2 million people age 65 and older are working in full- or part-time jobs. And, like Meyer, more seniors are drawing paychecks from retail jobs than any other occupation, according to a report released last week by the Urban Institute. It's one of the first to shed light on what workers are doing in what used to be referred to as the golden years.

In all, about 7 percent of those 65 and up in the workforce work in retail, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute's analysis of labor, employment and census data. Slightly more than half work the sales floor, while the rest work as their direct supervisors and managers.

The next biggest job categories are farming/ranching (3.4 percent) and janitorial work (2.8 percent).

It's not a huge surprise. For years, shoppers have sought help from graying workers when buying books, groceries, paint or a new outfit. Seniors flock to retail for its flexible hours and relatively low-skilled entry requirements. Although they'll likely need to learn how to operate computerized cash registers, retail workers don't necessarily need previous experience. An outgoing personality and an understanding of customer service is often valued.

But there's a flip side.

"Older workers are more attractive to retailers because they know how to act. They show up, they dress right, they can speak to people," said Kris Jacobs, executive director of JobsNow Coalition in St. Paul. "They're a terrific surplus workforce for retailers. The problem is these wages."

In Minnesota, the average retail salesperson earns $11.36 an hour, according to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development. A cashier gets $8.93 an hour.

"There's no such thing as a good-paying retail job anymore," Jacobs said.

Numbers to swell

Over the next six years, the number of 65-plus workers is projected to swell by 74 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Advocates worry that while retail jobs offer much-needed health care benefits and flexibility, the road ahead could be tough with rising health costs, fewer pension plans and a cost of living that isn't keeping up with wages.

"The overall prospects for older workers is good," said Richard Johnson, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute and author of the study. "But for older workers with limited education, the outlook is pretty bleak. At the same time that jobs are becoming less physically demanding, they're becoming more cognitively demanding, more stressful and more fast-paced -- especially in the growth industries and high-paying jobs."

Many retailers are touchy about offering specifics about their older workers, perhaps fearing age-discrimination lawsuits.

Minneapolis-based Target as well as Wisconsin-based Kohl's and Menards declined to provide statistics on the seniors who stock the shelves and work the counters. Home Depot, which also doesn't release specifics, nonetheless is openly courting seniors. In 2004 it formed a partnership with AARP to "attract, motivate and retain eligible older workers."

Wal-Mart reports that 25 percent of its 1.4 million workers in the United States are 50 or older. In Minnesota, about 20 percent of its 20,000 workers are 50-plus, with jobs in stores, distribution centers and offices.

"They're not just greeters," said Sharon Weber, a spokeswoman for the Bentonville, Ark.-retailer. "They bring a work ethic to the company that everyone can learn from. We have a 90-year-old employee in Indiana who's been with us for 15 years. She came to work here after retiring from somewhere else," Weber said.

Many workers like Carol Henderson, 70, work in retail because they must.

"I'm a solo parent and my son is unable to work," said Henderson, who said she lives with her son in a small apartment in Brooklyn Center. "I thought the hours would be flexible," she said. And the discount on the clothing she sells doesn't hurt either.

Then there's Judy Watson, 63, who retired -- sort of -- in October after three decades on the sales floor. Watson worked through ownership changes as Dayton's became Marshall Field's and then Macy's. Even after retiring, she opted to remain on Macy's "on-call" list and works four to 40 hours a week "just to get out, and so I won't get bored."

Meyer, the toy-store worker, said she also likes socializing on the job. An artist and poet, she's also taking advantage of a job perk that allows her to take craft classes at the store. Meyer hopes to start making felt dolls, which she'll try to sell.

"I like to stay active," she said. "And this is a place where I can contribute and that I believe in."

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335