By Susan M. Sipprelle
Englewood, NJ, USA
What is the best protection against unemployment for all Americans, including those who are Over 50 and Out of Work
? Higher education.
The answer probably surprises many people and confounds others, who have graduated from college or earned master’s degrees or doctorates and still can’t find a job. But the data is clear.
In January 2011, the U.S. unemployment rate stood at 9.0 percent; however, the number masks the underlying dramatic relationship between educational attainment and joblessness.
Susan M. Sipprelle
Nine percent is an average resulting from: a 14.2 percent unemployment rate for workers who had less than a high school diploma, 9.4 percent for high school graduates without any college, 8.0 percent for workers who had some college or an associate degree and 4.2 percent for workers who had a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Summing up, the difference in the unemployment rate between workers who had less than a high school education and those who had a college degree or higher is an astonishing 10 percent.
Moreover, the huge differential is not a monthly aberration. It has persisted over the last two decades, as dramatically illustrated in a chart created by Calculated Risk, and it will continue into the future. Employment opportunities for workers with master’s, professional or associate degrees are predicted by the U.S. Department of Labor to increase from 16 to 19 percent over the next seven years - more than two times higher than for jobs that do not require a high school diploma.
The advantages accruing from higher education are not ignored by all Americans, and older workers who have suffered job loss have found themselves driven by necessity to reinvest in themselves to get back to work. Boomers have proven themselves willing to go back to school to learn new skills and earn college degrees. Hardship has taught them that they must be more knowledgeable and adaptable to find and hang onto jobs.
Since February 2010, I have been working with a team and conducting in-depth video interviews for a multimedia documentary project, Over 50 and Out of Work. Many older Americans who have lost their jobs have also seen the value of their homes and savings decline precipitously as a consequence of the Great Recession, and they have less time than younger workers to recoup their losses and regain financial equilibrium. They face a daunting uphill battle against age discrimination and bias directed at the unemployed when they seek re-employment.
Yet, almost all of our interviewees exhibit remarkable resilience and determination when they confront unemployment and its potentially calamitous fallout at the age of 50-plus. Several of our interviewees have found new full-time jobs, but they have suffered through long months of unemployment while they attended job support and counseling groups and simultaneously earned additional professional certificates or degrees. In short, they strategized and studied hard to find new jobs, and the process was not easy.
Kevin L. of Green Bay, Wisc., lost his job in the paper mill where he had worked for 34 ½ years when the mill downsized and outsourced much of its production. Kevin, 58 when we interviewed him in April 2010, said he graduated from high school at a time when you could fall out on the street and land a job in factory. He had one job for his entire career until he lost it, and he took it for granted until he did not have it any longer.
Vigorous, healthy and ambitious, Kevin was not content to remain unemployed. He returned to college to earn an associate degree in business leadership development and labored to achieve a 3.9 grade point average. Last April, Kevin was discouraged about the difficulties that he was encountering in the process of recreating himself, but he had completely revised his outlook on the value of education. He loved learning and was energized by what he was discovering about global competitiveness.
Recently, Kevin emailed that his determined approach has paid off - he has been hired full-time by NAPA (National Automotive Parts Association), and he is taking company courses to move up to the next position.
Kevin’s story encompasses demographic and economic trends and encapsulates much of what we have learned from our interviews over the past year.
Over Kevin’s lifespan, American life expectancy has improved significantly. When he was born, average life expectancy in the United States was about 68 years. At that time, if an American reached the age of 65, he or she could expect to live another 14 years. Today, average life expectancy is 78, and a 65-year-old American can expect to live another 18 years. Kevin, who is now close to 60, can reasonably plan on celebrating his 80th birthday and, maybe, many more.
When he lost his long-term job in his mid-fifties, his life expectancy made it not only reasonable, but logical, for him to pursue higher education. When Kevin graduated from high school, he was easily able to find a factory job that did not require a college degree, but this straightforward path is no longer readily accessible to workers, given the decline of U.S. manufacturing. Higher education has increasingly become a basic job requirement, at a time when American college graduation rates have slipped to twelfth in the world.
“You have to be really flexible, and you have to have educated workers, so if some technology becomes available that will give you an edge,” Kevin said, “you have to be able to learn that within a reasonable period of time.”
As almost 4.5 million Americans go through the crucible of unemployment at the age of 50-plus, they have the opportunity to pursue higher education for themselves and set the example of lifelong learning and adaptiveness for younger Americans, not only to improve their own personal employability, but to help the United States remain vibrant, innovative and competitive in today’s global economy.
Susan M. Sipprelle is a multimedia documentary maker, a journalist and a photographer. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in 2008, and is the mother of five children.
OVER 50 AND OUT OF WORK is an ongoing multimedia project that documents the impact of the Great Recession on jobless Americans, 50 and older. Boomers, generally regarded as self-centered and indulgent, reveal unexpected depths of faith, perseverance and resilience through their life stories.
Click on the Names to View Their Stories.