By Susan M. Sipprelle
Englewood, NJ, USA
Susan M. Sipprelle
"She cleans up and reads to us." That's how one of my children described me to a teacher about a dozen years ago when asked, "What does your mother do?"
Now, at the age of 55, I am a documentary filmmaker, producer of the award-winning film Set for Life, currently showing on public television stations nationally. The path from there to here wasn't clear or planned, but I am grateful for the gradual transformation in my life.
After I worked for a decade post-college as a commercial banker in Manhattan, I stayed home with my five kids when they were young. I know it sounds hokey, but I treasured those years of arts and crafts, sledding, picnics and playgrounds, field trips to beaches, zoos and museums, even though the hours on some days dragged. On long, warm summer evenings, after I'd given the children their baths, sometimes I would simply pull them along in a wagon on the dead-end suburban street where we lived to while away the last half hour or so until I could cuddle up with them, read them their storybooks and put them to bed.
When the kids grew older and my husband still worked 12-plus hour days, I wanted desperately to get back into the bigger world again. I had the fantasy that I would pitch stories to magazines and other publications, then research and write them around my busy family schedule. I applied to Columbia Graduate School of Journalism's part-time program and was accepted.
I went back to school at the age of 47. My children were ages 3 to 16 at the time. It took me more than three years to complete the one-year journalism program, which was evolving from print to multimedia in the years I attended. I was not prepared for what I would encounter. I had not written for a school newspaper in high school, college or even in business school. My j-school classmates were closer in age to my children than to me. I knew little about reporting and even less about technology. I pretty much started at the bottom of every course. My fellow students were whizzes.
As time passed, I began to question my post-graduation plan. I tuned in to conversations about the daunting world of freelancing that many of my classmates were already trying to penetrate. Payment for stories was dropping precipitously, if not evaporating. Publications were folding and headlines foretold the demise of print. When I sat down in a writing class one semester and the professor, a dean of the school, discouraged us from pursuing careers as print freelancers, I decided to switch gears.
In my first multimedia computer lab, I couldn't sign on (my part-time password had lapsed). I couldn't copy and paste a photo from somewhere on the Web (I didn't know where to look). I couldn't manipulate the photo in Photoshop (I'd never used it). And then my computer quit, and I couldn't log in again. I needed to enter the professor's name, and I typed it incorrectly (after he carefully spelled out each letter), I was so flustered.
Anyway, I persisted and graduated with honors bases on a print master's project. My multimedia skills were too shaky to rely on at the time, and the school still accepted a written thesis for a new media concentration in 2008, thank goodness. Oprah ran a marathon at 50; I squeaked out an unexpected honors in journalism school.
In 2009, I started interviewing people over the age of 50 (my peers!) who had lost their jobs due to the Great Recession. Four years ago, the media was not paying attention to these older workers who had dependent children, declining parents, homes, bills and mortgages, but, suddenly didn't have a job or health insurance. Their homes were underwater and their retirement savings were disappearing. What would the future hold for them? Would they be able to recover?
Their stories needed to be told and I wanted tell them.
I found Sam Newman, filmmaker, with the help of my oldest son. Sam and I began using video to document what happened to older workers as a result of the economic downturn, and we created the website Over 50 and Out of Work that we eventually whittled into the one-hour film Set for Life. Its broadcast by American Public Television is funded in part by AARP Foundation that is working to win back opportunity for struggling Americans 50 and older.
It has been an amazing journey. The road from my half-baked ideas about journalism to today has been frustrating and difficult, but simultaneously amazingly rich in the knowledge I've gained and steeped with inspiration as an outcome of the people I have met, both directly through interviews or online through our social media.
It's the other half of the equation I'm struggling with now. I've changed and grown, but have I helped people? Made the world a better place?
I can point to some small direct accomplishments.
One of our Oregon interviewees was profiled on the local news because he participated in our online project, and an employer then offered him a job. However, the job was hourly with low pay and no benefits. Better than nothing, yes, but not as good as the trucking job he'd held before the Great Recession.
One of the main characters in Set for Life was weighed down by a high interest rate mortgage after he lost his job and then could not return to work because he now cares for his son, a Marine, who lost both of his legs after he stepped on an IED while on patrol in Afghanistan. Subsequent to the film's release and a column I wrote for this publication about the family's plight, the lender reconsidered and agreed to more affordable mortgage terms. Another small victory, but definitely not the answer to the family's ongoing financial problems that were caused by the economic downturn compounded by the war in Afghanistan.
So I am left hoping that there is value to chronicling the stories of individuals who find themselves buffeted by huge historical forces, such as the Great Recession, both for those who tell their stories and for those who watch them.
I can comfort myself with the knowledge that many of the original 100 Over 50 and Out of Work interviewees participated in our multimedia project because they saw their contribution as a public service. They wanted to warn others, especially young people, not to be complacent in their education or career or to place too much faith in their employer or the government. They wanted to sound an alarm.
Sam and I listened and did our best to honor their lives and experiences by documenting their stories. But, of course, that's not enough.
Before the economic upheaval, our interviewees believed that their own abilities and work ethic could overcome most, if not all, obstacles. The Great Recession and its aftermath eroded or erased that confidence for millions of older workers. Sure, they get by now on lower salaries, or by working two or three part-time jobs or by taking on sequential temporary positions. They endure and survive; they are resilient, but they no longer see the United States as the land of opportunity for themselves or their descendants. Their stories incorporate good news and bad news, and we have to heed both, not just the part of the outcome for older workers that aligns with our political beliefs.
"Hope is the thing with feathers," wrote Emily Dickinson, but hope alone can't conquer all hardships. Almost 8.7 million jobs disappeared during the Great Recession, and more than three-quarters of Americans were affected, either directly or indirectly. The ripple effects persist.
Every day on our Facebook page, people across the country, men and women we did not have a chance to meet for our interviews or film, share their continuing struggles with unemployment, underemployment, age discrimination, overwhelming student loan and mortgage payments, as well as the negative toll these problems impose on their health, wellbeing and families.
People are looking for decent jobs and targeted job support training and assistance that will help them land those jobs. Take a look at their stories and don't dismiss the efforts they are making or the suffering they are experiencing.
The unemployed Americans I've met since 2009 are tough and resilient; they hang on, but they are trying to figure out what the future will be like and what their place in it will be. There is no doubt that they have an indomitable will to survive, but they are looking for big ideas that will enable them and their descendants not just to endure, but to thrive and prosper. They are eloquent, but their stories don't fit the paradigm that if you work hard, you will succeed, so their experiences are ignored or, worse, disdained.
Clearly, my own journey has changed me and has made me define what I am doing and accomplishing with my journalism and filmmaking. I have sharpened my focus to the point of intersection between the person and the world. The concept of individualism has played an important role as a motivator in American history, as well as in our mythic beliefs about our selves and our country. What happens to people when that confidence in the power of the individual to overcome all odds is swamped by the reality of a changing world? I want to tell the stories of men and women who confront that disorienting and sometimes insoluble problem. I want to tell those stories all the time now, in as many dimensions and through as many voices as possible, as part of my personal effort to explore what equality and opportunity mean in the United States today.