By Susan M. Sipprelle
Englewood, NJ, USA
I thought I was set for life is the most common phrase I heard interviewing older Americans who lost their jobs as a result of the Great Recession. Over their careers, they had received promotions, praise and bonuses from companies such as AT&T, Panasonic, Pfizer or Weirton Steel. Then, one day, sometime after the economic downturn began in 2007, they were let go or downsized or told they were no longer needed and ushered out the door of the company where they had worked for more than 20 years. They were shocked.
They had children who depended on them, elderly parents who needed their support, bills and mortgages to pay. Compounding the impact of sudden unemployment, they found that their homes were underwater and their hard-earned savings were plummeting in value as housing and the financial markets tumbled downward. One more blow - they also lost their health insurance when they lost their jobs. They were stunned.
They are Baby Boomers and they are my peers, born during the era of general economic prosperity and optimism in the years between 1946 and 1964. They were not prepared to find their American Dream unraveling as they approached the end of their working lives.
Susan M. Sipprelle
Sam Newman, filmmaker, and I began conducting video interviews with unemployed workers age 50-plus in early 2010. Over the next two years, as we traveled across the country, I asked people, usually in their own homes, about what had happened to them after they became unemployed, how they were coping and how their job search was going. We posted 100 of these interviews on our website Over 50 and Out of Work. We also added to the site our video interviews with economists, psychologists and researchers to place the individuals’ unemployment experiences in a broader national context.
I was inspired by Studs Terkel’s masterpieces Working and The Good War to begin the multimedia documentary project Over 50 and Out of Work, but once Sam and I finished the interviews and the website, we wanted to do more to show the destructive consequences of job loss on Americans who are 50-plus and their families. We decided to continue our work and make a documentary.
Set for Life, the film,follows three Baby Boomers who struggle to recover from the devastating impact of losing their jobs in the Great Recession. They try to hang onto their homes, health insurance and hope. Over time, they find their way to cope with the drastic effects of unemployment on their lives, but their futures are no longer secure, and they have lost their unquestioning confidence in the American Dream.
Joe Price, a third-generation steelworker from Weirton, W.V., has been laid off seven times over the course of his 25-year career in the mill, but his most recent two-year layoff, which began in 2009, appears to be permanent.
Deborah Salim from Conway, S.C. worked for 15 years in the records department at a local community college until she lost her job due to state and local budget cutbacks in 2008.
George Ross, a Vietnam veteran and an information technology project manager from Livermore, Calif., lost his job in 2008. He was rehired by a different company, but laid off again in late 2010. He revived his job search until he was notified that his son, Jason, a Marine, had stepped on a buried IED in Afghanistan while on patrol. Both of Jason’s legs were amputated, as well as part of his pelvis. Remarkably, Jason survived and continues to heal under George’s full-time caregiving.
The film is structured around the paths that the three main characters take to recover after losing their jobs during the Great Recession. Their experiences are interwoven with clips from additional unemployed older Americans, who convey the common nature of problems that joblessness creates. Experts and animated infographics explain the scope and severity of serious issues caused by the Great Recession, including bill and mortgage payment worries, loss of health insurance, a prolonged and frustrating job search, depleted or exhausted savings, and a diminished optimism about the future.
As the film follows the three main characters through the daunting job search process for older unemployed workers, they suffer financial woes, self-doubt and health concerns. Thrust by the Great Recession into a quest they never expected to face at the age of 50-plus also opens deeper questions that are relevant for every individual: What defines my self-worth? What is my definition of happiness? Can I reinvent myself? Can I prepare for and accept change?
As the U.S. economy continues to falter, the themes and issues explored in Set for Life remain timely and topical not only for boomers, but for all Americans.
Set for Life is an official selection of the 2012 Massachusetts Independent Film Festival
and The Louisville International Festival of Film.