An ever-shifting economic landscape is channeling seniors into retail, farming and janitorial work. Retail employs more of them than any other sector.

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SAN CARLOS, Calif. — Five days a week, Max Gumbert drives up to the 95,000-square-foot Home Depot store in this leafy suburb at the northern edge of Silicon Valley, straps on an orange apron sagging with customer-service badges, and gets to work.

For eight hours a day, in a shift that often ends at 10:30 p.m., the flooring specialist answers questions: Hardwood or laminate? Ceramic tile or sandstone? Nylon or wool? Pergo or bamboo? Does cork absorb sound better than carpet?

But it is Gumbert’s presence here on the sales floor, with his cardigan and courtly manner, that answers a crucial question perplexing demographers and policy experts: If you are over 65 and still working in America today, what are you most likely to be doing?

Gumbert is 67, terrified of retirement and happy to go to work every day in the industry that employs more older Americans than any other: retail. Nearly 350,000 men and women 65 or older earn paychecks in the nation’s stores, according to a report scheduled for release in June.

In recent years, the question of exactly where older workers were employed has baffled people who have seen conflicting trends ripple through the nation’s job sites: More older Americans say they want or need to work past traditional retirement age, but employers are still reluctant to retain or hire them.

One result is that there has been little solid information about where people beyond the average retirement age of 63 work in greatest numbers, a critical issue especially now as benefits shrink and recession looms.

But statistics from the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research group based in Washington, show for the first time that people 65 or older and still working in America are statistically most likely to do retail, farming or janitorial work, in that order.

In fact, the nation’s stores employ more people 65 and older than the next two occupations combined, which worries some advocates who are trying to encourage the federal government, the country’s biggest corporations and other employers to keep older workers on the payroll.

“These are not exactly the pictures of reinvention that you get in your monthly issue of Fortune, Money or AARP magazine,” said Marc Freedman, author of “Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life.” This is “an object lesson in the dangers of what could happen if we don’t develop a compelling human-resource strategy for an aging society.”

AARP connection

Home Depot will not divulge complete statistics on how many older workers stride the concrete floors of its huge home-improvement stores, but the number is on the rise. The company hooked up with AARP four years ago to woo a sales force that might otherwise be golfing and says it now has 5,000 employees older than 70.

They are loyal and dependable, said Tim Crow, chief human-resources officer for the Atlanta-based company. “We look at the demographics, and everyone is getting older. This is the future work force.”

In San Carlos, nearly a score of the 200-plus employees are 60 and older, from Irene Goble, 61, whose quarter-century as a bartender left retirement an unaffordable luxury to Coy Deal, 72, a former Silicon Valley electrical engineer who was laid off in his late 60s.

Their reasons for regularly punching the time clock in the locker-lined employee break room include “have to,” “want to” and everything in between.

Gumbert would place himself in the middle of that spectrum, a German-accented mix of need and desire. Gumbert spent most of his work life in the hotel industry, rising from waiter to director of food, beverages and catering at venues including the San Francisco Hilton.

But by the time he hit his early 50s, the wear and tear were beginning to show. The days stretched to 18 hours. The phone would ring in the middle of the night. Contemporaries began having heart attacks and worse.

Gumbert switched to restaurant work, then left the hospitality field “cold turkey” in search of a job at which, he said, he could “punch in and punch out. I don’t want to be called at 2 in the morning.”

A newspaper ad led him to the company formerly known as Color Tile. When it went belly-up, he landed at Home Depot. Nearly 11 years later, he is still here in the San Carlos store, guiding do-it-yourselfers through the complexities of home renovation.

“I draw Social Security checks, but it goes right into the bank,” he says, as does a small pension from his decade at Hilton Hotels. “I’m not dependent on it right now, but who knows what the future brings? It’s my nest egg. When I was younger, I wasn’t the saving type.”

“You never know”

“Eventually I think I’ll have to retire,” Gumbert acknowledges. “When I’m 90, I don’t think I’ll be selling flooring. But why not? You never know. At least I don’t feel my age.”

Gumbert and Deal — the 72-year-old former electrical engineer — are walking proof of another sobering statistic.

In a separate study scheduled for release later this year, the Urban Institute found that 43 percent of people working full time in their early 50s will change jobs before their late 60s. More than one-quarter of those 50-something full-time workers will enter a new occupation. Nearly one in four will be laid off.

“Older people really need to prepare for a work life of change,” said Richard Johnson, a principal researcher on both studies. “There’s a real strong possibility that you’ll lose your job, and you’re going to have to go out and find another one.”

That’s what happened to Deal, who worked for various software companies in the Silicon Valley. One went bankrupt and was bought out by another, then that one got into serious trouble.

“I was actually let go with the reduction in force,” Deal said. “I was in my 60s. I went out on unemployment. I put out 100 or more résumés. Most people want to hire some young kid out of school so they can pay them next to nothing. I gave up after I ran out of unemployment.”

He went to work with his son, an electrician, and started at Home Depot about a year ago. Deal works 16 to 32 hours a week. He wishes the pay were better — it’s little more than minimum wage — but he’ll keep at it “until I really can’t push myself.”