For the Unemployed Over 50, Fears of Never Working Again

Patricia Reid, 57, lost her job at Boeing four years ago and has struggled to find a new position.

VASHON ISLAND, Wash. — Patricia Reid is not in her 70s, an age when many Americans continue to work. She is not even in her 60s. She is just 57.

Accidentally Retired

Articles in this series are examining the struggle to recover from the widespread strains of the Great Recession.

Liz Howland, standing at left, leads a "mature workers" seminar for people like Deborah Luger, 56, seated at left, who want to be more attractive to employers.

But four years after losing her job she cannot, in her darkest moments, escape a nagging thought: she may never work again.

College educated, with a degree in business administration, she is experienced, having worked for two decades as an internal auditor and analyst at Boeing before losing that job.

But that does not seem to matter, not for her and not for a growing number of people in their 50s and 60s who desperately want or need to work to pay for retirement and who are starting to worry that they may be discarded from the work force — forever.

Since the economic collapse, there are not enough jobs being created for the population as a whole, much less for those in the twilight of their careers.

Of the 14.9 million unemployed, more than 2.2 million are 55 or older. Nearly half of them have been unemployed six months or longer, according to the Labor Department. The unemployment rate in the group — 7.3 percent — is at a record, more than double what it was at the beginning of the latest recession.

After other recent downturns, older people who lost jobs fretted about how long it would take to return to the work force and worried that they might never recover their former incomes. But today, because it will take years to absorb the giant pool of unemployed at the economy’s recent pace, many of these older people may simply age out of the labor force before their luck changes.

For Ms. Reid, it has been four years of hunting — without a single job offer. She buzzes energetically as she describes the countless applications she has lobbed through the Internet, as well as the online courses she is taking to burnish her software skills.

Still, when she is pressed, her can-do spirit falters.

“There are these fears in the background, and they are suppressed,” said Ms. Reid, who is now selling some of her jewelry and clothes online and is late on some credit card payments. “I have had nightmares about becoming a bag lady,” she said. “It could happen to anyone. So many people are so close to it, and they don’t even realize it.”

Being unemployed at any age can be crushing. But older workers suspect their résumés often get shoved aside in favor of those from younger workers. Others discover that their job-seeking skills — as well as some technical skills sought by employers — are rusty after years of working for the same company.

Many had in fact anticipated working past conventional retirement ages to gird themselves financially for longer life spans, expensive health care and reduced pension guarantees.

The most recent recession has increased the need to extend working life. Home values, often a family’s most important asset, have been battered. Stock portfolios are only now starting to recover. According to a Gallup poll in April, more than a third of people not yet retired plan to work beyond age 65, compared with just 12 percent in 1995.

Older workers who lose their jobs could pose a policy problem if they lose their ability to be self-sufficient. “That’s what we should be worrying about,” said Carl E. Van Horn, professor of public policy and director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, “what it means to this class of the new unemployables, people who have been cast adrift at a very vulnerable part of their career and their life.”

Forced early retirement imposes an intense financial strain, particularly for those at lower incomes. The recession and its aftermath have already pushed down some older workers. In figures released last week by the Census Bureau, the poverty rate among those 55 to 64 increased to 9.4 percent in 2009, from 8.6 percent in 2007.

But even middle-class people who might skate by on savings or a spouse’s income are jarred by an abrupt end to working life and to a secure retirement.

“That’s what I spent my whole life in pursuit of, was security,” Ms. Reid said. “Until the last few years, I felt very secure in my job.”

As an auditor, Ms. Reid loved figuring out the kinks in a manufacturing or parts delivery process. But after more than 20 years of commuting across Puget Sound to Boeing, Ms. Reid was exhausted when she was let go from her $80,000-a-year job.

Stunned and depressed, she sent out résumés, but figured she had a little time to recover. So she took vacations to Turkey and Thailand with her husband, who is a home repairman. She sought chiropractic treatments for a neck injury and helped nurse a priest dying of cancer.

Most of her days now are spent in front of a laptop, holed up in a lighthouse garret atop the house that her husband, Denny Mielock, built in the 1990s on a breathtaking piece of property overlooking the sound.

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