TOPICS > Economy

Brutal Job Search Reality for Older Americans Out of Work for Six Months or More

May 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Despite a rosier jobs picture in April, for Americans ages 55 or older who have been unemployed long-term, the prospect of finding work is greatly limited. Economic correspondent Paul Solman explores why older workers face joblessness and considerable financial strain.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And now back to the jobs picture.

Despite the good news in today’s employment report, nearly two million Americans 55 and older are still out of work.

Economics correspondent Paul Solman looks at the continuing struggles of the long-term jobless in their 50s. It’s the latest in an occasional series on older workers and part of his ongoing reporting Making Sen$e of financial news.

JOE CARBONE, President, The WorkPlace: I don’t want you to think for a minute that I’m somebody who doesn’t understand what unemployment is like.

PAUL SOLMAN: Joe Carbone runs the WorkPlace, a job training center in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

JOE CARBONE: I was unemployed once for eight-and-a-half months. I used to drive 20 miles to do a little grocery shopping so I wouldn’t meet anybody who would be able to look at me and ask, “Did you get a job yet?” So, I know what it can do.

PAUL SOLMAN: Given the empathy that Carbone and his staff convey, it’s no surprise that the unemployed flock here for emotional support.

WOMAN: I have been on the Internet daily, all day, eight hours a day. I can’t find anything.

PAUL SOLMAN: These folks have all been unemployed long-term, and as you may have noticed, most are 55 and older. There’s been lots of talk about the improving jobs picture of late, and especially today, when the official unemployment rate dropped to 7.5 percent, the lowest since 2008.

Our own more inclusive measure of the un- and under-employed is down to 16 percent, the lowest since we started tracking it in 2010. But in Bridgeport and at job fairs around the country, the reality is brutal for the more than four million Americans who remain out of work six months or more.

For those 55 and older, it takes about a year on average to find work, longer than for any other age group.

JOE CARBONE: They’re carrying a double whammy, not just the long-term unemployment, but they’re 50 and older. It makes things that are bad even worse.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, how much of a factor is age in explaining the stunning long-term unemployment numbers? We assembled a group of the jobless to ask them bluntly, is your age the reason you can’t find work?

FRANK RENDE, Seeking Employment: Beyond a shadow of a doubt. Beyond a shadow of a doubt.

PAUL SOLMAN: Fifty-nine-year-old facilities manager Frank Rende lost his job four years ago.

FRANK RENDE: We got here in the first place because we were in the highest salary range. We were the first to go. We’re going to be the last to come back.

PAUL SOLMAN: Software developer Geoffrey Weglarz, 55, has been looking for two years.

GEOFFREY WEGLARZ, Seeking Employment: I have applied for 481 jobs.

PAUL SOLMAN: But none of them have panned out?

GEOFFREY WEGLARZ: None of them have panned out, no. They think that anybody over a certain age is going to be used up.

PAUL SOLMAN: Longtime admin assistant Debora Ducksworth, on the hunt since ’09, says that, paradoxically, experience is now a negative.

DEBORA DUCKSWORTH, Seeking Employment: I have 30 years of experience, and you will see something that says, we want you to have X-amount of skills, but we only want you to have no more than two years of experience.

PAUL SOLMAN: And all they’re trying to do there is screen you out?

DEBORA DUCKSWORTH: Exactly. And now I’m thinking, I’m going to be 60 in October. Is anyone ever going to hire me?

ALICIA MUNNELL, Boston College: We actually did a survey a few years ago where we asked H.R. types how they viewed older workers.

PAUL SOLMAN: Economist Alicia Munnell says the human resource managers were skeptical of workers like those in Bridgeport.

ALICIA MUNNELL: They said they worried about their ability to learn new things, about their physical stamina and basically how long are they going to stay. And, so, it’s — when you looked at the whole picture of their assessment of older workers, you really wouldn’t go out of your way to hire one.

PAUL SOLMAN: And there’s another reason an employer might be loath to hire an older worker: If things don’t work out, will they be sued?

Mary Corbin thinks age is the reason she was let go a year-and-a-half ago.

MARY CORBIN, Seeking Employment: No one under 50 was laid off, and it was a large amount of people. In the package that they gave everyone, they emphasized, for signing the package, you will not come back and sue us for age discrimination.

PAUL SOLMAN: And you couldn’t afford to not take the severance?

MARY CORBIN: Right. I did finally sign the package, because I needed that income to take care of my family.

PAUL SOLMAN: But, according to Alicia Munnell, employers may simply think they’re protecting themselves.

ALICIA MUNNELL: We have these age discrimination laws that may have a perverse effect, in the sense that you get — you’re really locked in once you hire an older worker. You can’t fire one, so why hire one to begin with?

PAUL SOLMAN: Event planner Patty Ford has been on the market about a year. She’s 57, but:

PATTY FORD, Seeking Employment: My resume only has 10 to 12 years of experience on there.

PAUL SOLMAN: Why?

PATTY FORD: Because that was what I was advised to do, because you don’t want people to know how old you are.

PAUL SOLMAN: Geoffrey Weglarz does the same thing.

GEOFFREY WEGLARZ: I cut it off at a certain point. Earlier in my career, I was an actor. So, my career in business, in technology starts 15 years later than they would assume just out of college.

PAUL SOLMAN: Are you are you passing for someone younger?

GEOFFREY WEGLARZ: Yes. There was one time when I was coming in for a face-to-face interview. And the H.R. recruiter saw me, assumed who I was, and his face — I could just see his face almost fall when he saw me and how old I was. After that, I pretty much got pushed through two of the people I was supposed to talk to. The other three got busy, and I couldn’t see them.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, as you’re saying that, everybody here is nodding. You have all been through that?

FRANK RENDE: You can just sense, you know, that you’re losing your audience.

DEBORA DUCKSWORTH: It’s like, I’m going to give her maybe a half-an-hour of my time, but, you know, they’re stressing because they really don’t want to give you that time at all.

PAUL SOLMAN: Recruiter Nick Corcodilos runs a website for job seekers and also writes the weekly “Ask the Headhunter” column for our Making Sen$e site. Look, he says, an employer can have legitimate concerns about older candidates.

NICK CORCODILOS, AsktheHeadHunter.com: The employer’s just trying to figure out who can actually get the job done. So, there are some older workers — probably a lot — who simply don’t have the skills or the wherewithal to do a certain kind of job. There, it’s up to the worker to go out and bring themselves up to speed and do it in an aggressive way, do it as quickly as possible.

PAUL SOLMAN: Moreover, from the firm’s perspective, says Alicia Munnell, you will probably get more bang for your buck with a younger hire.

ALICIA MUNNELL: People’s salaries go up every year for cost of living and some promotions and productivity growth. And they get more expensive on the health care front just because they have more ailments.

And most of the studies show that people’s abilities peak around age 40 and then sort of decline gently thereafter. So, you have this mismatch of sort of rise in compensation, steady at best productivity, and it makes older people not look like such a good deal.

PAUL SOLMAN: That may be why so many older workers are given lower pay if and when they are rehired. Bank executive Mike Leahy was unemployed for two years before he finally found work as a branch manager at a small bank. He took a pay cut of 15 percent.

MIKE LEAHY, Bank Executive: That wasn’t unexpected. I was so grateful for an opportunity in a job that I had done before because I really was one of those guys, I really wasn’t sure what was going to happen.

PAUL SOLMAN: Do you think that once you’re out of work for six months, a year in your case, two years, that you’re damaged goods?

MIKE LEAHY: I absolutely believe that the fact that you are not working now and you’re of a certain age is the issue.

PAUL SOLMAN: Leahy got the job through The WorkPlace program platform to employment, which matches long-term unemployed with firms that have openings.

MIKE LEAHY: I wake up every day and, believe it or not, I am thrilled to be going to work. I don’t think I’m going to lose that for some time. I may not lose that for the rest of my working career, because I know now how fragile this is.

PAUL SOLMAN: Fragile, a good word to describe any job these days and the finances of those who for a long time haven’t had one, like Geoffrey Weglarz.

GEOFFREY WEGLARZ: I have gone through my savings. I have gone through my 401(k).

PAUL SOLMAN: Completely?

GEOFFREY WEGLARZ: Completely. My unemployment last check is next week. I have about $2,000 dollars to my name, and, after that, I don’t know.

PAUL SOLMAN: And you don’t know how you’re going to make that up?

GEOFFREY WEGLARZ: I have no fallback position. I’m behind on my mortgage. I’m on food stamps, and I’m on financial hardship for both electricity and for gas.

PAUL SOLMAN: And without that, you would be without electricity and gas?

GEOFFREY WEGLARZ: Yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: And without food stamps, you wouldn’t have enough to eat?

GEOFFREY WEGLARZ: After the unemployment runs out, probably.

PAUL SOLMAN: When The WorkPlace’s Joe Carbone hears stories like this, he wonders why more isn’t being done to help.

JOE CARBONE: We have got special programs here for veterans, and we should, for people with disabilities, and we should, you know, for dislocated workers, and we should. We see a new population that are unemployable because of the length of their unemployment occurring during the worst recession since the Great Depression, and we’re just ignoring them, ignoring them.

I can’t tell you what that does to me. I love this country so much, but I can’t imagine that we would ever leave any of our citizens, any of our brothers and sisters, to be part of a process that’s declaring them hopeless. And that’s what’s going on.

PAUL SOLMAN: A grim assessment for the millions of long-term unemployed still looking for work in a growing economy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Online, Geoffrey Weglarz, the man we heard who’s gone through his savings and 401(k), talks more about being a jobless single dad. Plus, Paul Solman has his take on today’s employment report. You will find that on our Making Sen$e page.