By Susan M. Sipprelle
Englewood, NJ, USA
Since the declared end of the Great Recession almost two years ago, the outlook for unemployed boomers in the United States has continued to evolve and become more complicated, but it has not brightened.
Susan M. Sipprelle
On the positive side of the picture, the unemployment rate for older workers is 6.3 percent, which compares favorably to the national average of 9.0 percent. More ominously, the length of time that older workers are jobless has been climbing since 2008 and now exceeds 12 months, three months longer than the average time for all unemployed workers.
Moreover, although the number of Americans who are 50-plus and jobless remains around three million, this figure does not take into account: workers who have dropped out of the labor market due to discouragement; individuals forced to claim disability payments or Social Security at the earliest possible date because they cannot find jobs to support themselves; and, lastly, the growing numbers of boomers who are seriously underemployed.
For the past 15 months, Over 50 and Out of Work has been using video to chronicle the stories of older unemployed Americans, and we have now reached our goal of documenting 100 Stories. We have traveled to 16 states, focusing on the states suffering from the highest unemployment rates and interviewed people who have worked in all major industry groups in a diverse array of occupations.
We continue to stay in touch with our interviewees and track the progress of their job searches. Here is a brief summary of their outcomes to date:
Five of our 100 interviewees have returned to work in jobs that provide salaries and benefits comparable to the compensation they received previously. Eight have gotten back to work in full-time positions where they are now paid one-half or less of their prior salaries. “I’m making one-third, compared to what I used to make before,” Joseph W., 60, IT specialist, Castro Valley, Ca. Most of our interviewees, however, are now eking out a living by taking on one or two part-time jobs or by trying to redefine and market themselves as independent consultants. “I’m currently part-time employed, still looking for other [work]; I need two jobs,” said Mark M., 63, computer consultant, New Orleans, La. Over one-third of our interviewees remain jobless.
More than half of our interviewees no longer have health insurance because they cannot afford to pay for it themselves, and they are too young to be eligible for Medicare. Several have lost their homes in foreclosure during the Great Recession and its aftermath. “When I lost my job, it became very difficult to keep my home, and I eventually lost it,” said Anthony L., 53, salesman, Las Vegas, Nev.
In sum, although most of our unemployed older workers have proven themselves resilient and adaptable to changing workforce conditions by learning new jobhunting techniques, upgrading their skills, networking and volunteering (both to do good and build job connections), the outcome of their lengthy job search has not been rosy. Even if they have found work, they have not been able to recoup the financial setbacks they suffered when they drew down their savings to tide them over their while unemployed, and they can no longer count on retiring. “When I add all of those things up in my personal situation, the damage [from unemployment] to my wife and I is going to approach half a million dollars,” said Stan B., 60+, engineer, Rockwood, Mich.
We interviewed Carl Van Horn, professor of public policy and director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, as an expert for our documentary project. Professor Van Horn has been studying labor markets for 30 years and jointly authored, The “New Unemployables”: Older Job Seekers Struggle to Find Work during the Great Recession.
In May 2009, the Heldrich Center surveyed unemployed workers of all ages and repeated the survey in August 2010. By 2010, one-third of the younger workers had been re-employed, a historically low success rate, Van Horn said. Of the older workers, only one-sixth had found new jobs, an even poorer outcome. Older workers who had gotten back to work had accepted lower pay. Half of the survey respondents were no longer able to afford health insurance. Overall, the job search outcomes for our Over 50 and Out of Work interviewees are slightly bleaker than the dismal results for the survey’s participants.
For older workers, long-term unemployment creates more than financial pain. It severs or frays marriages and relationships with children. “I’ve been out of work for a little over two years now. My wife doesn’t love me; my kids don’t love me,” said Mike R., 58, draftsman, Portland, Ore. It impacts health and self-esteem adversely. It disrupts future opportunities, not only for unemployed older worker, but also potentially for their children and grandchildren. “Me and my family, we’ll probably find ourselves in the streets in a month or two,” said Rudy L., 61, truck driver, Woodburn, Ore.
For unemployed boomers, who were born into an era of prosperity and optimism, their future expectations have been upended, if not reversed. “You’re getting ready to lose everything you own, and you spent 40 years building it up,” said Albert Y., 59, electrical engineering technician, Las Vegas, Nev. Long-term joblessness prevents them from participating dynamically in the economy as productive members and active consumers. More fundamentally, both men and women feel lost and unsure of their place in society when they lose a job they have held for 20 or more years. Their belief in the future for themselves and their families has been shaken, if not obliterated. “It was the American Dream, and now it’s become the American nightmare,” said Rich G., 58, small business owner, Fort Myers, Fla.
Although we have reached our goal of chronicling 100 Stories, we continue to encourage individuals to contribute their Over 50 and Out of Work written or video stories to our documentary project. (For how-to suggestions on submitting a video, click here.)
We have now begun work on a feature-length documentary that will explore in greater depth the issues revealed by our 100 interviews. The film will look at the how the plight of unemployed boomers impacts their children and grandchildren.
Are we entering an era of diminishing expectations for future generations? Does the American Dream still exist?
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.