By Susan M. Sipprelle
Englewood, NJ, USA
The economy appears to be picking up slightly as we enter 2011, but who is benefiting? Are Americans getting back to work?
The unemployment rate improved modestly in December 2010, but job creation was lower than expected and the number of people looking for work fell. The combined impact resulted in an unemployment rate of 9.4 percent in December, down from November’s 9.6 percent. Despite the small decline, it’s hard to feel confident about our economic rebound, given that more people than anticipated were discouraged about their chances of finding work and dropped out of the labor force.
Even among Americans who did find jobs, the rate of underemployment continues to climb. Underemployed people have gotten back to work, but their new jobs don’t match their skills, the number of hours they want to work or their desired compensation. Gallup polls show that the underemployment rate rose to 19.0 percent last December from 17.2 percent at the end of November.
Susan M. Sipprelle
What’s happening with the Over 50 and Out of Work Americans we are interviewing last for our multimedia documentary project? We started our interviews in February 2010, and, one year later, we have 60 video interviews online as we head toward our goal of 100.
Only nine, or fifteen percent, of our 60 interviewees have been able to return to full-time jobs. All nine endured many months of joblessness before becoming re-employed. Of the nine, three have accepted significantly lower salaries for the chance to return to work.
A few of our interviewees remain unemployed, without any work at all, struggling to pay their bills and stay in their homes.
The majority of our interviewees, however, are seriously underemployed. They are cobbling together a livelihood from part-time jobs and unemployment insurance, if they are still eligible for benefits. They are drawing down their retirement savings to tide them over, while hoping to get back to financial stability. Most of our interviewees have also seen the value of their investments and homes diminish. Their ability to retire in the future is threatened or gone, and most are no longer able to afford health insurance.
Albert Y., 59, an electrical technician from Las Vegas, Nev. recently completed a degree in human resources to improve his employability. Nevertheless, he has been unable to find full-time work since he was laid off by a utility in January 2010. He found a part-time job in the city’s sanitation department, but his income has been reduced by 75 percent. Albert has managed to stay current with his bills and mortgage payments by using up his retirement savings, but he does not know if he will be able avoid foreclosure, if he cannot find full-time work.
Although Kevin L. returned to school to get a degree in business management, the 58-year-old former paper mill worker from Little Chute, Wisc. has found reinventing himself dispiriting. Kevin lost his job in December 2006 when the mill modernized and outsourced much of its work. Energized by his education, he thought it would be easy to find a full-time job that utilized his newly acquired academic knowledge combined with his prior work experience. To date, he has only been able to find part-time employment as a salesperson in a retail sporting goods chain store.
Mary E., 61, of New Hudson, Mich., is struggling to find any kind of work in the Detroit metropolitan area, where the reported unemployment rate is 12 percent. She lost her full-time financial services position in January 2010 due to bank mergers and downsizing. Although Mary retooled her resume and skills with the help of a job counseling agency, she has only been able to find temporary employment very sporadically. Her unemployment benefits have run out; she has used up her savings; she has no health insurance, and her financial situation has become increasingly desperate.
Our interviewees’ stories illustrate a broader issue - older workers have a much harder time getting back to work than their younger cohorts. On average, workers 55 and over were out of work in December 2010 for almost 43 weeks compared to 36 weeks for workers ages 25 to 54.
In our interview with Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College and a former member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, she described the American economy as dynamic: As people earn and spend, the economy grows and its expansion fuels job growth.
Unemployment and underemployment disrupt this positive economic cycle and make it less likely that Americans of any age can get back to work. Moreover, older Americans who cannot find jobs have begun to draw their Social Security benefits at the earliest possible age of eligibility because they need the income to make ends meet. But if they can continue to work and defer claiming benefits until they reach the age of full eligibility or beyond, they will increase their future monthly payments and make maintaining their standard of living over their lifetimes more likely.
By working several extra years, older Americans also reduce the financial pressures on Social Security caused by the boomer demographic bulge. If they are able to work longer, they are contributing to revenues, rather than drawing benefits, and they reduce the pressure on the federal budget, benefiting the overall economy.
All of these desirable outcomes that contribute to economic prosperity and power are contingent on the availability of work. Unsurprisingly, in the most recent Pew Research Center report, the economy and jobs dominate the American public’s 2011 policy concerns. The multi-trillion-dollar question is: Where will our new jobs come from?
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.