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By Susan M. Sipprelle
Englewood, NJ, USA

Susan M. Sipprelle
Susan M. Sipprelle

For the past two and one-half years, Sam Newman, filmmaker, and I have been interviewing men and women over the age of 50 who lost their jobs in the Great Recession. Our work culminated in the documentary Set for Life, which follows three Baby Boomers as they seek reemployment after losing their jobs in the economic downturn.

Now that the economy seems to be recovering, albeit slowly and unevenly, it is easy to forget or minimize the pain that unemployment wreaked on older workers and their families. Since 2007, older workers have tried to survive in an economy that shed jobs, decimated savings and erased the equity they had accumulated in their homes over time. Also, of course, they lost their health insurance when they lost their jobs. In sum, they faced the economic equivalent of a perfect storm that they are still trying to weather.

"For people in their 50s, who lose their jobs, the consequences are probably going to last for the rest of their lives," said Richard W. Johnson, director of the retirement policy program at the nonpartisan Urban Institute.

The harmful effects of the Great Recession continue to drag on, especially for Americans who are nearing the traditional retirement age of 65. No other age group has seen its income drop as sharply post-recession. Even younger workers, who have also suffered greatly in the recession's aftermath, have not suffered income declines as large as older workers. Between June 2009, when the recession officially ended, and 2012, the median annual income of all householders age 55 to 64 decreased from $61,716 to $55,748, a decline of close to 10 percent. In comparison, the median yearly income of younger householders, ages 25 to 34, declined from $54,520 to $49,659 or just under 9 percent. 

The data cited above includes both older workers who were employed during the Great Recession and those who lost their jobs. Focusing only on the individuals who lost their jobs, but were able to get back to work after the recession ended, reveals that they accepted a substantial cut in pay to reenter the workforce. Workers, ages 45 to 54, received an average rate of pay 18 percent less than their former pay, and workers, ages 55 to 64, experienced a 24 percent cut in pay.

Overall, less than half of the older workers who lost their jobs in the Great Recession have been able to get back to work.

What do all these statistics mean? Most older workers do not expect that they will be able to live comfortably in retirement. 

The results of an April 2012 Gallup poll show that Americans plan to work longer in response to the troubled economy and improved life expectancy. They now expect to retire at age 67, up from age 63 in 2002 and 60 in 1995. Despite their plans to extend their working years, almost two-thirds of people over the age of 40 do not think they will have a comfortable retirement in the years ahead.

In the past, financial planners advised prospective retirees to rely on a three-legged stool consisting of retirement savings, pensions from employers and Social Security to support their future years. Advisors now recommend that Americans add a fourth leg to their stool – a job.

In fact, only 18 percent of U.S. adults expect to stop working at retirement. But where will those jobs come from and will they be available to older workers? Based on the experiences of older workers, including the individuals profiled in our documentary, hanging onto a job has not been proven easy for older people during or after the Great Recession and getting back into the labor force after a job loss, even more difficult.

Only one of the three main characters in our documentary still believes that he will able to fully retire. Joe Price, 53, who depleted his savings during the many layoffs he endured over his 25-year career as a steelworker, has been reemployed by a solar mirror manufacturer. He hopes he can rebuild his nest egg over the next 10 to 12 years and then, retire completely. Neither Deborah Salim, 60, who now works part-time at United Way, nor George Ross, 60, a former IT project manager can count on retiring in the future. The many months they both spent searching for positions consumed their savings, and George's return to work has been postponed by the care giving he has provided for his son Jason, a Marine, who stepped on an IED while on patrol in Afghanistan.

The resilience and grit that older Americans have shown in response to the economic turmoil they have faced at the end of their careers is remarkable and often, inspirational. Younger Americans are reported to be making shifts in response to lessons learned from watching the Baby Boomers cope with the Great Recession – they are saving more at an earlier age and making wiser choices about housing purchases. Time is on their side.

Set for Life is an official selection of the 2012 Massachusetts Independent Film Festival
and The Louisville International Festival of Film.


Audio clip from the opening of Set For Life - An Over 50 and Out of Work Documentary



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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