TOPICS > Economy

Older Workers Face New Challenges in Tough Job Market

December 10, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In his continuing series of reports on Making Sense of the economy, Paul Solman looks at the challenges older workers face trying to secure a job, let alone retirement, amid the downturn.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now: finding a job when you’re over 50. The number of workers seeking jobless benefits rose by 17,000 last week to a seasonably adjusted 474,000. That was more than expected.

As the nation’s unemployment rate stands near its highest level in more than 25 years, “NewsHour” economics correspondent Paul Solman looks at the unique problems facing older workers.

It’s part of his ongoing reporting on “Making Sense” of financial news.

PAUL SOLMAN: How many of you are going to retire later than you otherwise would have?

WOMAN: Retire from what?

PAUL SOLMAN: A recent meeting of a 50-plus job search group at Jewish Vocational Services, JVS, in San Francisco, no one looking to retire, no one with a job to retire from.

For law firm billing specialist Patricia Wilson, age is the roadblock.

PATRICIA WILSON, legal assistant: I was told during the interview: “As you can see, We’re a very young group. And our main concern is that you are overly qualified for this job, and we would be concerned that you wouldn’t stay.”

PAUL SOLMAN: Did you believe them?

PATRICIA WILSON: No. Of course I didn’t believe them. I just felt that they didn’t think that I would fit in with the younger group.

PAUL SOLMAN: The jobless rate for workers over 45 has more than doubled since the start of the recession, hitting a record 7.5 percent last month, the highest since 1948, when data were first collected.

Many are losing out to younger, cheaper counterparts.

MIKE MCGUIRE, journalist: I actually had the experience of losing a job to an unpaid younger worker because of the prevalence of internships.

PAUL SOLMAN: Mike McGuire is a journalist.

MIKE MCGUIRE: At no time since slavery have so many people worked for free in America. And I have even heard they have started — some people have actually started to pay people to go work for them.

PAUL SOLMAN: In 1986, the late Congressman Claude Pepper, then 85, sponsored a bill that outlaws most mandatory retirement. Yet, an AARP study released last year found that 60 percent of workers aged 45-74 had either seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace.

Abby Snay of JVS.

ABBY SNAY, executive director, Jewish Vocational Service: People cannot be discriminated against because of their age. That doesn’t mean that older workers aren’t losing jobs in large numbers and competing for jobs with people half their age, and knowing that their skills may not be as competitive.

PAUL SOLMAN: Workers 45-plus are more likely to be among the long-term unemployed, those unemployed at least six months. In November, over 50 percent of the older unemployed were out of work for at least 27 weeks, after having worked for decades, like photo stylist Sandy Gasser.

SANDY GASSER, photo stylist: We’re very good at many other things, excellent, as a matter of fact, but we’re not skilled at looking for work. We have been doing our careers all this long time.

PAUL SOLMAN: Moreover, says Abby Snay:

ABBY SNAY: The last time they looked for work, the whole way of looking for work, all the methodology of job search, was completely different. And now somebody is telling you, you have to use LinkedIn. And you don’t know what it is. Maybe your kids or your grandkids use Facebook. But you have to learn LinkedIn and then figure out who your network is.

PAUL SOLMAN: LinkedIn is a computer networking Web site.

But some older workers need more basic training.

WOMAN: You want to remove it from this location and put it into the job search folder.

MAN: I click over here to bring that document here, or just this, copy — or paste, rather?

PAUL SOLMAN: JVS teaches the older unemployed to navigate the job market via computer. But what job market, ask workers like accountant Melanie Einbund, looking since January.

MELANIE EINBUND, accountant: Looking for a job that it’s a job that not necessarily you want to have. I want to be doing my numbers. I want to be working with my team. I want to be adding value to my company.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, this is a job. But you don’t want the job of looking for a job?

MELANIE EINBUND: You have got it. I don’t want the job of looking for a job. I want my job.

ABBY SNAY: It’s very frustrating. It’s also very demeaning for older people to be in a supplicant position with people who could be half their age.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, maybe older workers should just give up and retire. No, just the opposite, argues Stanford economist John Shoven, considering that older people are actually much younger than they have ever been.

JOHN SHOVEN, Stanford University: Today’s 65-year-olds have less than half the chance of dying within a year as 65-year-olds did in 1950. They are not the same age; they are healthier; they are much further from death; they’re younger.

A year of life today is not the same unit as it was in 1950, just like a dollar today is not the same unit as a dollar was in 1950.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, I’m 65. So, how old am I?

JOHN SHOVEN: So, you are about the same age as a 56 year old was in 1950, a nine-year adjustment. That’s a pretty serious adjustment.

PAUL SOLMAN: Thus, according to Shoven, since people live longer, they should retire later.

JOHN SHOVEN: In 1900, the average length of retirement for men was two years, two years. Men worked until they couldn’t work. They were real sick, and they died within two years. By 2000, retirement length was 20 years.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, not every economist agrees.

Teresa Ghilarducci, author of “When I’m 64,” says, the data show that retirement is actually good for people.

TERESA GHILARDUCCI, New School For Social Research: When women retire, their mental well-being and their physical well-being increases. They’re improved. Their health improves.

PAUL SOLMAN: You mean they actually live longer?

TERESA GHILARDUCCI: It adds to their longevity. And, for men, their deterioration just slows down. So, if men kept on working, they will die sooner. If they retire, they have longer lives.

So, oddly, this idea that we should be working longer because, supposedly, we’re living longer, could actually be reversed. If we made people work longer, longevity would decline. We would — all of our improvements would be wiped out.

WOMAN: Send them an e-mail.

MAN: OK. I will do that.

WOMAN: And let them know that you’re looking.

PAUL SOLMAN: But, even if the traditional retirement age were beneficial, given their low and, in the last year, dwindling savings, those we spoke with didn’t feel they had much choice. They can’t afford to retire, especially if laid off in their 50s or 60s, like our friends in San Francisco.

SANDY GASSER: I have been dipping into my retirement fund. And that is an added stress for me. And the clock is kind of ticking on that, which means I can only take that so far, and then I can’t keep going, because what I have built up over the years is going away.

PAUL SOLMAN: And, on top of the financial stress, says teacher Laura Grossman, unemployment takes an emotional toll, too. Both she and her husband are looking for full-time work.

LAURA GROSSMAN, teacher: We are who we are because of our work and our experience. And not having that is the most demoralizing. And it feels — you — I felt bereft.

MELANIE EINBUND: When you do lose your job — and it doesn’t matter if you’re 50. It doesn’t matter if you’re 70 years old. You still have hopes and dreams. And those hopes and dreams get sidelined.

PAUL SOLMAN: The hopes and dreams of older workers these days, however: just finding a job.