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Why Uber is the perfect employer for my 70-year-old, hot-air balloon pilot father

My father always said he’d be a really good rich, eccentric person, if only he were wealthy. A 6-foot-4-inch former college football player who split his pants during my 7th-grade father-daughter dinner-dance, he’s certainly a free spirit. He kept chickens and mourning doves at our home in the middle of San Francisco, only making a few neighbors annoyed when we briefly had a rooster.

My dad was a janitor, then a lock salesman, and then, for most of my life, a hot air balloon pilot, taking passengers for early morning flights over Napa vineyards. Now, he has added another job to his eclectic resume: Uber driver. That’s right — if you find yourself in San Francisco in an Uber, my dad may be your driver.

Last year after selling his balloon company and turning 70, he bought a new car and started driving for the ride-hailing app. He always loved shuttling me, my siblings and my mother around San Francisco to our sporting events, on errands, or to his particular favorite, the SFO airport — the latter possibly due to its proximity to See’s Candies. After 25 years of hot air ballooning, my father had extra time on his hands and Uber seemed like the perfect solution to keep him active, earn him some extra cash for chicken feed and Giants tickets, and, importantly, get him out of the house.

From hot air balloon operator to Uber driver!

But he had a few obstacles to overcome, considering that he didn’t have an email account and had never used a smartphone. With the help of my sister and some very patient people at Uber, my dad got an iPhone and learned how to open an app. The learning curve was steep, especially for a defensive tight end with giant fingers — but somehow he figured out how to pick up passengers. And he only needs to pass his phone back to those passengers once or twice a day so they can help him figure something out. 

My dad is part of the aging baby boom generation hitting retirement age in record numbers. He’s also part of a growing trend in the sharing economy: the over-50-year-old. Uber reports 23% of its drivers are over 50. Airbnb says 13% of hosts are senior citizens. Both categories expect to see growth in the next few years as the population ages and more people look for extra income and opportunities to stay connected to their community.

So don’t be surprised if more of your Uber drivers look like they're collecting Social Security.

Life Reimagined, a subsidiary of AARP, has been working with Uber since last summer to get even more older drivers on the road. Adam Sohn, vice president of Strategic Engagement and Media at Life Reimagined, says the response has been strong.

“The last thing they consider themselves is retired,” says Sohn of the boomer generation.

Uber, Lyft and Airbnb keep older workers engaged, and Sohn says the gig economy is often a bridge to figuring out what’s next in retirement. Valued for their previous work experience and knowledge of the driving area, older drivers also have strong retention rates and tend to stick with the job if they make it part of their routine. The extra money doesn’t hurt, either.

My dad’s not getting rich driving for Uber. I rode with him one day and was surprised to see he got as little as $4 for one ride. Uber takes less of a commission for military-veteran drivers (yes, Navy E-3 is also on my father’s resume) so my dad takes home a bit more than your average driver. That's not a ton of money, but at least Uber keeps him busy. And thanks to Uber he now knows how to use a smartphone, sort of.