Last month I had the good fortune to sit down with the nation’s oldest Avon Lady, Mrs. Evelyn Nowakowski. Our chat was a treat for me, providing many interesting and relevant economic lessons. A more accomplished writer could easily get a full book out of her experiences. Readers of this column will have to be content with those economic lessons that are important today.
Mrs. Nowakowski’s work at Avon began on Oct. 5, 1966, shortly after her youngest child entered kindergarten. The company’s direct sales model meant that she could have a career that was flexible enough to allow her to prepare meals, look after her five children and make some extra money. In October 1966, just 40.7% of working-aged women worked outside the home. That figure peaked in 2000 at 60%, and sits at 56.8% today. But, today’s number is a full percentage point lower than the pre-Pandemic level. That is a million fewer women working today than in February 2020.
There are echoes of Mrs. Nowakowski’s experiences in today’s labor market. Her concerns about balancing home and work life made Avon’s model appealing, and her recollections helped me better understand where we are in 2022. Of course, women’s experiences in labor markets are vastly different than in 1966.
Today there are no closed or restricted occupations, and many once male-dominated professions, such as medicine, are poised to be majority female. For every two young men who attend college today, three young women do. These changes allow women much vaster opportunities than their grandmothers enjoyed, but it does not alter the difficulty in balancing those work opportunities with family life.
I believe we have entered a time when women and men will speak more frankly about those challenges, and pursue careers with more freedom to balance work and life. Avon’s success came in part because it could do that for Mrs. Nowakowski, and hundreds of thousands of other women. The direct sales model was an important innovation, celebrated by awards named for a Mrs. Persis Foster Eames Albee, the first Avon Lady. But, Avon’s innovation extended beyond the way they sold their products.
One of the early 1966 advertisements was for creme sachets in the “somewhere, cotillion and topaze” scents. I clearly didn’t prepare enough for this interview, because I have no idea what a creme sachet might be. I do know that it regularly sold for $2.00, and was marked down to 99 cents in their January 1966 catalog. In today’s dollars that would be $17.16 and $8.49 respectively. Curiously, I also learned that empty bottles for these products sell today at between $12 and $18 today, marking some nostalgia for Avon products.
Our conversation sparked memories of Snoopy-themed bubble bath and tear-free shampoo that accompanied my bath time ritual in that far-off year of 1966. During our conversation she reminded me of Wild Country, a cologne my grandmother gave me for Christmas when I was 16. She thus secured a new customer, 56 years after she started selling. She is a remarkably adept saleswoman.
Mrs. Nowakowski approaches 100 years of age, and so she has been selling Avon for more than half her life, and 35 years past the typical age of retirement. When she started with Avon, about 9.7% of women over age 65 still worked. Today that is over 10%, and the age categories were expanded to those 75 and older. Remarkably, from 2010 until COVID, the share of that oldest group still working rose from 5.7% to 7.2%. We don’t yet know what the post-COVID share of this age group are working, but it is remarkable that this Avon Lady pressed on with her work through the trying two years we’ve just lived through.
These reminisces are interesting, far more so than I can do justice. But, I don’t think they really get at the central importance of this work, both to the individual and our economy. Mrs. Nowakowski used this job to earn extra money while meeting the more satisfying demands of sustaining her family. She also used her time as an Avon Lady to meet other people and sell other products, notably homemade candy. This helped her develop a network of friends who continue to sustain her. Of course this work was about making money for college, family vacations or a car payment, but it was really so much more.
The packaging and ordering was done at home, with her family participating in the process at her kitchen table. Her family speaks (somewhat) lovingly of the experience, and of her enjoyment of the work and travel. No doubt Evelyn Nowakowski will enjoy some attention for being the oldest Avon Lady, but no one who knows her would list that high as among her great lifetime accomplishments. She had a long and happy marriage, and she raised successful and happy children who raised even more successful and happy grandchildren.
As remarkable as it has been, the Avon Lady work is subordinate to those experiences of a long life of faith and family. That is a wonderful thing. Our economy exists not to produce more Gross domestic product or higher incomes, but also to nurture our other ambitions. We should never lose sight of that part of our economy, and be thankful for the innovations that enable it. At first flush, the innovation of direct sales that gave us the Avon Lady would appear humble beside the technological wonder of our age. But upon more reflection, this is exactly what a vibrant economy needs to flourish.
What today’s changes in labor force participation and child care shortages might be telling us is that the many tens of thousands of Avon Ladies of the past century are not an obsolete model of work. Rather, this type of flexible, family- and life-centered job, nestled in a community that values more than just a job might be exactly what Americans are craving. If so, we should start viewing the work-life balance of the Avon Lady as one of the more enduring and adaptable of American innovations. Mrs. Evelyn Nowakowsi’s century of experience is a prime example of the mother, entrepreneur, community-minded volunteer and savvy businesswoman who keeps our economy the largest and most dynamic the world has ever experienced.
Michael J. Hicks, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University.