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Out-of-Work Boomers: Learning to Stay Positive in Tough Times

By Susan M. Sipprelle
Englewood, NJ, USA

Susan M. Sipprelle
Susan M. Sipprelle

Last month, Over 50 and Out of Work screened a rough cut of one segment of our documentary-in-the-making at a career networking group meeting in Bronxville, N.Y. The section we previewed focuses on Joe P., 52, a former steelworker from Weirton, W.Va.

Joe followed in the footsteps of both his father and grandfather when he signed on at the steel mill as a young man. He anticipated that he would make a good living and looked forward to a secure retirement, but his career did not turn out as he expected. He was laid off seven times over his 25 years in the mill due to the decline in U.S. steel manufacturing and his pension benefit was cut drastically when Weirton Steel declared bankruptcy in 2003.

Joe clung for years to the hope that he would be able to do the work he loved in the mill, but he gradually realized and accepted that he would have to begin a new career in his fifties. Remarkably, he succeeded due to his persistence and determination. He now works as a machinist at a plant in Pennsylvania that manufactures solar mirrors.

Although our screening audience in Bronxville consisted of former bankers, information technology project managers, teachers and graphic designers rather than steelworkers like Joe, they recognized and often shared the hardships caused by prolonged periods of unemployment that Joe faced - financial difficulties, health insurance concerns, worries about retirement and the future, loss of self-esteem, age discrimination and a frustrating job search.

Older workers frequently grapple with feelings of isolation and embarrassment about their unemployed status as they hunt for new jobs. One goal of Over 50 and Out of Work, both through our website and our documentary, is to demonstrate to 50-plus unemployed or underemployed workers that they are not alone.

More than 30 months after the Great Recession was declared over in June 2009, four million older Americans are still out of work or working at part-time jobs when they would prefer full-time positions. Prior to the Great Recession, seniority and experience generally sheltered older workers during economic downturns. Current job market conditions are uniquely problematic for older workers in the context of U.S. labor market history.

“I was shocked when I lost my job,” is the most frequent statement we have heard in our 100 Over 50 and Out of Work interviews.

“60 Minutes” recently aired a segment on Platform to Employment, a job placement program for the long-term unemployed offered in Connecticut as a public-private partnership. Program participants receive job readiness skill training, but they are also provided with counseling and behavioral health services to manage stress and rebuild a positive outlook and confidence before they are placed in eight-week internships. After five months, 53 out of 100 program participants had found jobs.

The importance of an upbeat attitude in the job search process cannot be overemphasized. Joseph W., 61, an information technology specialist from Castro Valley, Calif., is one of our original 100 Over 50 and Out of Work interviewees.

“Emotionally, it did hurt,” Joseph wrote in an email about how he felt in 2008 when he lost his job due to the Great Recession.

He was unemployed for nine months, but he spent that time “running around, running around,” letting everyone know that he was looking for a job, attending networking meetings and volunteering at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Palo Alto, Calif.

Eventually, he was offered a position at the hospital. Although he initially accepted a salary one-third less than he had received in his former job, Joseph has been promoted twice since he returned to work in April 2009.

We asked Joseph, who was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, how his conception of the American Dream has evolved over his career. He responded in an email:

“Learn to accept changes in your dream. No more ONE JOB in your career. This nation is still the best place to work and live.”

The economy is recovering, but not at a pace that reduces overall unemployment. Too few jobs are being created to absorb new workers, who are entering the labor market for the first time, as well as the unemployed, who are trying to get back into the workforce, and major layoffs have not ended. At the end of February, the U.S. Postal Service announced that it would cut 35,000 jobs and Proctor & Gamble said that it would eliminate 5,700 positions.

“The ‘Great Recession’ and our current pothole recovery have permanently altered the workplace,” according to a recent report from the Rutgers University center for workforce development on the economy.

Recognizing the changes in the workplace, adapting and maintaining an optimistic, persevering approach to the job search process have proven to be successful strategies in these tough times for out-of-work boomers.

Note: We began Over 50 and Out of Work two years ago. We are in the process of contacting our 100 interviewees and should be able to report on their job search outcomes next month.




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.

All opinions expressed by Susan M. Sipprelle are solely her own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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