By Susan M. Sipprelle
Englewood, NJ, USA
For the past 16 months, filmmaker Sam Newman and I have traveled across the country using video to chronicle the stories of unemployed older Americans. As the project progressed, our mission expanded. We wanted our 100 Stories to improve the cultural perceptions of older workers and influence public policy to make it easier for them to find re-employment.
Our project dispels the myth that jobless older workers would prefer to receive unemployment benefits rather than work. Our interviewees, who were not pre-screened or scripted, are determined to return to the labor force. Their aim is to regain their financial security and to become contributing members of the economy once again. Their life stories, focused on their current unemployed status, are eloquent and moving.
Our project participants have adapted to changing labor market conditions by learning new job-hunting techniques, networking and volunteering (both to do good and to build connections), upgrading their skills and enhancing their education. Even so, given the sluggish state of the economy, the outcome of their lengthy job searches has not been rosy.
Only seven of our interviewees have been able to return to full-time positions at salaries comparable to what they earned previously. Most are severely underemployed and about one-third remain jobless. These job search results mirror the findings of an ongoing national unemployment survey that is being conducted by the center for workforce development at Rutgers University.
As we approached our goal of documenting 100 stories, we reached out to elected officials about Over 50 and Out of Work and the issues it has revealed, including the erosion of job security, financial hardship, strained marriages and family relationships, foreclosure, lack of health insurance, dependence on children or on parents to help defray mortgage and living expenses, and the inability to pay for children’s college education.
Susan M. Sipprelle
We tried to email all 50 governors, 100 senators and 435 members of Congress. This effort turned out to be a disheartening endeavor.
Immediately, we learned that U.S. citizens cannot easily email our elected officials. Their direct email addresses are no longer available; you must write to them using the contact forms on their individual websites. Neither the websites nor the forms are standardized, so we attempted to cut and paste a description of Over 50 and Out of Work and the link to the project website into each of the 585 governors’, senators’ and representatives’ different forms.
I wrote attempted above because we discovered that a citizen cannot communicate with many of the country’s elected officials, despite the forms on their websites. If the zip code you enter on the form does not fall within the elected official’s state or district, you either cannot enter the information on the contact form or, once you do, you are not allowed to submit it.
Even if we accept the concept that governors and members of the House serve only the constituents who reside in their state or district and that they are not interested in ideas or feedback submitted to them online from elsewhere, senators should take a national perspective. Yet many senators’ sites also do not allow input from a citizen who resides outside of their state.
The upshot: we received an exploratory phone call from the office of the governor of Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee, and a form letter about senior citizens from Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.
In sum, our project did not receive one informed response at either the state or national level from any elected official, despite the fact that all recent major polls indicate that jobs and job creation is the most urgent issue facing the United States today.
Of course, we could have tried to use snail mail to communicate, but Over 50 and Out of Work is a web-based project that uses video to convey its themes. Neither words nor economic data can convey the multigenerational pain that unemployment and its repercussions have created among older Americans and their families.
There are numerous reasons why getting older unemployed workers back on the job should resonate with governors and members of Congress. Our interviewees are recalibrating their expectations downward and worried about their ability to maintain their middle class status. Their expectations about the future are diminishing, rather than expanding, which has a direct impact on their willingness to spend money that could boost economic growth. If they do not believe that job opportunities will be available in the years ahead, they are less likely to invest in training or education to prepare themselves or their children. Although globalization races ahead, the United States continues to fall behind in its educational attainment levels relative to other countries.
Also, if jobless older workers are not able to find employment, despite their best efforts, they often claim Social Security benefits at the earliest date they are eligible, which reduces the monthly payments they receive over their lifetimes and adds a further burden to the program and the U.S. budget. Without the prospect of decent-paying jobs, they lose confidence in the motivating promise of the American dream, both for themselves and for their children and grandchildren.
Fortunately, but somewhat ironically, we have been given a chance to take Over 50 and Out of Work to Washington, D.C.
On May 18, a Huffington Post blogger wrote about the project and embedded one of our videos in his online story. Staffers to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee noted the featured HuffPo story and asked us to testify and prepare a video testimonial about the project for the June 23 committee hearing on “Stories from the Kitchen Table: How Middle Class Families are Struggling to Make Ends Meet.”
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.