There’s a lot of talk about cutting unemployment benefits to get people back to work, lessen dependence on social welfare payments and reduce the national deficit. The idea behind these proposals seems to be that people aren’t trying hard enough to find jobs. They’re languishing on extended unemployment benefits, enjoying government handouts, not actively seeking work and scorning jobs at lower wages or salaries than they received previously.
I say it just ain’t so.
Susan M. Sipprelle
Since Feb. 2010, I’ve been conducting video interviews with older unemployed Americans for Over 50 and Out of Work, a multimedia documentary project. The reason older Americans aren’t going back to work is that they can’t find jobs, not that they don’t want them.
“To even insinuate that people would rather sit on their butts and collect unemployment, which, if we’re lucky, is one-quarter of what we were making when we lost our jobs, is insane,” said Pam B., 58 of Berkley, Mich., a restaurant manager.
Pam and her husband, an air filtration systems salesman, felt blindsided when they both lost their jobs on Jan. 12, 2009. Simultaneously, the resources they had been accumulating for their future evaporated. The value of their retirement savings declined by half when the stock market fell, and their house was suddenly worth less than the sum of their first and second mortgages. Their greatest worry was that they would not be able to continue to afford their daughter’s college tuition.
“I put us on some really radical budget strategies,” Pam said. A combination of borrowing from family and friends, collecting unemployment and severely restricting expenses tided them over, but was never intended to be a long-term solution for the family. They have been forced to withdraw money from their retirement savings. Their daughter will be able to graduate from college, but she is now carrying a heavier burden of student loans than her parents ever anticipated.
Pam has applied for hundreds of jobs, but has had very few interviews. Thus far, the impersonality of the job application process and the overwhelming number of job seekers for very few job openings have made the search frustrating and unproductive for her. The fact that she is currently unemployed has also become an unexpected obstacle, because some job postings require that the applicant be currently working.
Pam’s husband returned to work in July of 2009, but Pam remains jobless. Although she tries to remain positive and optimistic, Pam believes that the impact of the Great Recession on her family is that she and her husband will never have the opportunity to retire.
Stanley B., 55-plus, an engineer from Rockwood, Mich., worked at Youngstown Sheet and Tube, Republic Steel, General Tire and Rubber, General Motors and Delphi Corp. Over his career, he successfully weathered corporate restructuring, acquisitions and downsizing. He never had any difficulty transitioning from job to job. In 2005, when Stanley was in his fifties, he and his wife moved from northeastern Ohio to Michigan, hoping that he would be able stay with Delphi until he retired, but when the company’s business declined, he was advised to take an early retirement at the end of 2008.
Stanley has now been unemployed since early 2009. He has applied for over 300 jobs, half of which required a college degree and some amount of experience; the remainder requested only a high school education. To date, he has had two job interviews and no job offers.
When he adds up relocation costs, foregone income and the diminished value of retirement savings, Stanley calculates that the Great Recession and the months of unemployment that he and his wife have endured have cost them over half a million dollars.
Neither Pam’s nor Stanley’s experience is uncommon, as detailed in a July 2010 Pew Research Center report on the impact of long-term unemployment. The majority of the long-term unemployed have seen their financial situation worsen, experienced strains in their relationships with both family and friends and lost self-respect. They are also more likely than the short-term unemployed to settle for lower paying jobs with fewer or no benefits.
Kevin L., 58, of Green Bay, Wisc. worked at a paper mill for 34 years, but lost his job in 2006 when the mill modernized production and downsized its labor force. He was eligible for federal retraining benefits, so he enrolled in a local technical college to study business leadership.
“I’ve got my ticket now,” he said he thought about his future in the workforce. Although highly motivated and engaged by his course work, Kevin has found reinventing himself extremely difficult. His hoped-for payoff from his outstanding grade point average combined with his extensive work experience has been disappointing. He is now working part-time at a sporting goods store.
Older individuals are also generally regarded as less willing than younger to relocate in pursuit of employment. Although mobility in the United States has declined due to the slump in home values, many of our 50-plus interviewees are willing to pull up their roots and relocate for jobs, rather than simply stay put and remain on unemployment compensation.
Rick P., 61, of Piscataway, N.J., pursued a lifetime career in information technology, as an entrepreneur and as an employee for large corporations. Most recently, he worked for Citigroup, but lost his job in April 2007 when the financial conglomerate laid off 17,000 senior and mid-level managers in the New York metropolitan area on a single day.
Since that time, he has submitted hundreds of applications, some for jobs as far away as Dubai, trying to return to a job in his industry. He and his wife, who have raised six children, have decimated their retirement savings during his lengthy unemployment. They have not had health insurance for over 30 months. Rick has taken on two part-time jobs and his wife, who was a homemaker, now works evenings at a nearby bookstore.
“The next 5, 10, 15 years of my life will be working my tail off,” Rick said. “I don’t anticipate retiring ever. I don’t anticipate I’ll be able to.”
The drive and desire to return to work shown by the unemployed older job seekers above represents only a small sample of the individual stories filmed for Over 50 and Out of Work in New York, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Florida, West Virginia, Washington, D.C., Michigan and Rhode Island. Over the next few months, we will travel to California and Nevada, continuing to document the impact of the Great Recession on Boomers and the impediments that prevent them from rejoining the workforce, despite their willingness to retrain, relocate and accept lower paying jobs.
Getting Boomers back to work helps both at the individual and national level. “When people work more, they generate income and spend that income on goods or services – increasing not just the supply of workers, but also the demand for other jobs,” wrote Eugene Steuerle, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and currently a Fellow and the Richard B. Fisher chair at the Urban Institute.
The long-term mission of Over 50 and Out of Work is to improve the cultural perceptions of older workers and to influence public policy changes that will make it easier for them to find re-employment, because expansion, not contraction, in the size of the labor force has helped the economy rebound from prior recessions time and again.
Our interviewees express their deep-seated worries and fears about their futures. Unless they can find jobs, the optimistic ethos of the iconic post-WWII generation, an intrinsic part of our national character, will ebb away, and we will sink into an era of diminishing expectations and contracting opportunities, not only for Boomers, but for all Americans.
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.
All opinions expressed by Susan M. Sipprelle are solely her own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.