By Susan M. Sipprelle
Englewood, NJ, USA
Susan M. Sipprelle
In Set for Life, the documentary I produced with Sam Newman, filmmaker, three Baby Boomers struggle to get back to work after losing their jobs in the Great Recession.
"I assume that they all get jobs in the end," someone said to me recently about Set for Life's main characters before seeing it. In fact, the outcomes for our film's three main characters are complicated and their futures - as they age into the latter decades of their lives - have become less certain and more worrisome.
The daunting job searches they undertake reflect the new reality for older jobseekers - the odds in today's labor market are stacked against them.
Prior to the economic downturn, older workers enjoyed lower rates of unemployment than younger workers, and they could rely on finding new jobs in four to six months if they became unemployed. Job counselors advised people to squirrel away six months of income as savings to tide them over, in the unlikely event of job loss.
The Great Recession and its aftermath trashed that conventional wisdom, especially for older workers. Now, they must expect to be out of work for approximately one year after suffering a job loss and also to return to work at considerably lower rates of pay than they received previously.
Joe Price, 53, a former steelworker from Weirton, W.V., was laid off seven times over the course of his career in the mill. When we met him for the first time in 2010, he had been out of work for two years. While Joe was unemployed, he earned an associate's degree in fiber optics, volunteered to serve on his community's housing board, did odd jobs, renegotiated the terms of his mortgage with his local bank and submitted approximately 500 job applications.
In 2011, Joe found employment at a solar mirror manufacturer outside of Pittsburgh, where he recently received a promotion and a raise - all good news. He and his wife Jeanie, however, used up their savings during the many long months when Joe was unemployed. Jeanie was forced to sell her jewelry, including her wedding ring, to help make ends meet.
The happy ending to Joe's story is that he was able to find a good job with healthcare benefits, and he still hopes that he will be able to retire in his mid-60s. But, in the wake of the Great Recession, Joe and Jeanie have been forced to start over again when they are in their fifties, and they are left with a diminished lifestyle, reduced savings and far less confidence that their future will be comfortable.
The outlook for the years ahead is even cloudier for both Deborah Salim and George Ross, the other two main characters in Set for Life.
In 2009, Deborah Salim of Conway, S.C., lost her job in the records department at her local technical college where she had worked for 15 years. Budget cutbacks necessitated by the Great Recession eliminated her position.
After two years of unemployment and many fruitless applications, Deborah finally found a part-time job that pays $7.25 an hour at United Way with the assistance of Experience Works, a program that helps place older workers in new positions. She also now receives a widow's benefit payment from Social Security, due to the death of her first husband. With these two income sources, Deborah barely scrapes by.
She managed to renegotiate her home mortgage once she began working again, so she has been able to remain in her home. However, at the age of 60, she has no savings and no health insurance, although she suffers from heart problems and has had a pacemaker installed. Only her faith in God allows Deborah to believe that she will be able to remain employed and hang onto her home.
The saga that George Ross, 60, a former IT project manager from Livermore, Calif., has endured is the most complex and heart-wrenching of our three main characters. In 2008, George installed a computer network for a hospital complex, but by the time the project was completed, the economy had slumped into the Great Recession, and he was laid off because there were no new construction projects underway. Although his wife Linda continued to operate a day care business out of their home, generating some income for the couple, George was out of work for 17 months. The Rosses depleted their savings and reluctantly dipped into their retirement funds while George applied, seemingly endlessly, for a new position.
Eventually, George's search was successful, but on March 9, 2011, the day that George was scheduled to begin work at his new job, his son Jason, a Marine, stepped on an IED while on patrol in Afghanistan. The severity of the blast and the extent of Jason's injuries required the amputation of both of Jason's legs, as well as part of his pelvis. George became Jason's full-time caregiver while Linda managed to keep the family afloat with her earnings from her day care business.
After we completed our documentary in June 2011, George and Linda's situation worsened. They had no more savings that they could use to supplement Linda's day care income and pay their bills. They tried to renegotiate their mortgage without success; they fell behind on their mortgage payments, and they began to fear the loss of their home. At this desperate point, Jason's wife assumed George's role as Jason's non-medical caregiver.
George immediately took a job as a driver for a car service company while continuing to search for a job in his profession, IT project management. Fortunately, last December, their lender Ocwen* agreed to refinance their mortgage, which has given the couple much needed financial relief.
Nevertheless, as 2013 begins, the Great Recession and the war in Afghanistan have left George and Linda Ross no longer set for life. They are almost starting over again, trying to rebuild the American Dream they had once achieved.
So, yes, the three main characters in Set for Life have been able to return to work, but they are coping with significant downward mobility and sobering expectations about their futures.
Their experiences are not unusual. Nationally, younger Baby Boomers (ages 45 to 54 years) who lost their jobs due to the Great Recession earn 18 percent less when they return to work, and older Boomers (ages 55 to 64 years) earn 24 percent less. Income data, of course, does not reflect the depleted savings or the loss in home equity that older workers have also suffered.
At Set for Life's screenings, audience members have asked Sam and me how they can help older unemployed workers after they watch our film. What can be done?
Last November, we took the opportunity to pose that question ourselves after Set for Life was shown at the J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, which has studied the U.S. labor market since 1997. We asked Carl Van Horn, center director, and Maria Heidkamp, senior project manager at the center, if they could recommend a program that is helping large numbers of older unemployed individuals get back to work. Our own research and reporting over the last three years has not turned any up. They answered that they would let us know if they found one.
*The Rosses were trying to cope with two great hardships - the loss of George's job due to the Great Recession compounded by the grievous injuries suffered by their son Marine Staff Sgt. Jason Ross when he stepped on an IED while on patrol in Afghanistan. Although George and Linda had managed to stay current with their mortgage payments until February 2012, they had been unsuccessful in renegotiating its terms.
After the release of Set for Life in September 2012 and the publication of my December 2012 Stay Thirsty column about the family's plight, the Rosses story was brought to the attention of management at Ocwen for reconsideration, especially in light of Jason Ross's heroism and personal sacrifice for America. Just before Christmas, George and Linda learned that Ocwen had agreed to renegotiate the terms of their mortgage and that has enabled them to resume payments and remain in their home where they have lived for over 20 years.