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Job seekers wait in line to speak with job recruiters at a job fair for businesses in the medical field in New York. (Spencer Platt/Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Job seekers wait in line to speak with job recruiters at a job fair for businesses in the medical field in New York. (Spencer Platt/Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Older and jobless: Struggling in the U.S. Add to ...

In her darkest moments, Patricia Reid cannot escape a nagging thought: She may never work again.

She is not in her 70s, an age when many Americans continue to work. She is not even in her 60s. She is just 57.

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 50- and 60-something workers 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 in the United States, more than 2.2 million are 55 or older. Nearly half of them have been unemployed six months or longer, according to the U.S. Labor Department. The unemployment rate in the group - 7.3 per cent - 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 their 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 labour 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 resumes often get shoved aside in favour 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 in the U.S. who are not yet retired plan to work beyond age 65, compared with just 12 per cent 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 per cent in 2009, from 8.6 per cent 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.

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