By Susan M. Sipprelle
Englewood, NJ, USA
Susan M. Sipprelle
“I feel like we’re the throwaway generation,” Mickey O., 56, said about the Baby Boomers’ role in the economy.
Despite faltering gains in the wake of the Great Recession, approximately three million older Americans remain unemployed, and this number, of course, does not capture the millions who have given up on the job search and are no longer counted or the severely underemployed who can barely scrape by or the 60-plus-year-olds who have been driven to claim Social Security benefits earlier than they had planned because they could not find jobs.
When the Great Recession began in mid-2007, fewer than 1.5 million older Americans were out of work. Episodes of joblessness for older workers at the time were typically short-lived. Seniority and years of experience shielded older employees and made them valuable to employers.
Fast-forward to now, the start of 2012. Conditions for older jobseekers are little improved, more than two years after the downturn was declared over in December 2009. The majority of older workers who lose their jobs face at least a one-year struggle to find work. Their job search often turns into a two- or three-year odyssey of financial, familial and personal hardship. Even when they are successful and find work, they generally must accept a lower rate of pay.
Over 50 and Out of Work is a multimedia documentary project that chronicles the impact of the Great Recession on Boomers. In early 2010, we began to travel across the United States, and we have conducted video interviews with 100 jobless older Americans, concentrating our interviews in states with the highest rates of unemployment.
Two years later, we are conducting a follow-up survey of our 100 interviewees. Most have not fully recovered from their job loss. They remain unemployed or underemployed, although they have updated their resumes, upgraded their skills and applied for dozens, if not hundreds of jobs. They have not been able to return to full-time work with benefits, and they are disillusioned about their prospects in the years ahead. We are asking them how their lives have changed, what advice they have for other unemployed workers and how they define the American Dream today compared to how they thought about it when they began their careers.
We are always questioned about the handful of happy endings for our interviewees: Did any of your project participants find jobs?
Warning: The three success stories summarized below are not reflective of the entire group’s experiences. They are the exceptions, not the rule.
Steve B., 64, of Valley Cottage, N.Y., worked as a salesperson in the legal services industry until he lost his job in mid-2009 due to the economic downturn. He was unemployed for about 12 months, but he was able to return to work in the information technology and services field, receiving a salary and benefits comparable to what he had earned previously. Steve used his extensive network of contacts to find his new position.
Six months ago, Steve reflected in an email on what he had learned from his yearlong period of joblessness, “Life is not always a straight line, but faith, friendship and helping others is. If we find our security and sense of self in the workplace - we can be in for some very rude awakenings.”
One year after returning to work, Steve and his wife are still trying to rebuild their savings, which they were forced to draw down when he was unemployed.
Out of work for 14 months, Donna J., 61, from Antioch, Calif., was able to find a new full-time position with benefits as a technical writer, although the salary is one-third less than she earned previously. During Donna’s job search, she assessed her skills, received an online certification in technical writing and networked both through a job support group and with former colleagues.
Although Donna and her husband have been able to hang onto their home, they are still paying down their debts, which grew during Donna’s months of joblessness, and she has lost her sense of security about the workplace.
“When you can be unceremoniously dumped from a job you were excelling at, for no apparent reason, other than the dart hit your name in the HR downsizing game, trust is hard to give again,” she wrote in an email.
Gary W., 58, of Green Bay, Wisc., was a union welder for over 30 years, until he lost his job in 2009 when the plant where he was employed laid off most of its labor force. He was jobless for 27 months, but his wife was able to keep working and maintained their healthcare benefits.
While unemployed, Gary enrolled in federal retraining programs targeted at displaced workers, returned to school and earned an associate’s degree in business. He now works as a salesperson in the funeral services industry where his compensation is commission-based, in contrast to the hourly rate he received previously. His new employer offers a 401K, but no paid holidays or vacations. When Gary worked in manufacturing, he was eligible for five weeks of vacation and 10 paid holidays, as well as traditional defined benefit plans.
“For the most part, our life has slowed down,” Gary wrote in an email about how he and his wife are coping with the changes. “We have a greater appreciation for what we have.”
Next month, we will summarize how the 100 are faring as group in terms of employment and report more fully on the sobering futures that most of them are facing.