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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 a midmorning break, Anne Richard, who declined to give her exact age, confessed she was afraid she would not be able to work again after losing her contract as a house director at a University of Washington sorority in June. Although she had 20 years of experience as an office clerk in Chattanooga, Tenn., she feared her technology skills had fallen behind.

"I don't feel like I can compete with kids who have been on computers all their lives," said Ms. Richard, who was sleeping on the couch of a couple she had met at church and contemplating imminent homelessness.

Older people who lose their jobs take longer to find work. In August, the average time unemployed for those 55 and older was slightly more than 39 weeks, according to the Labor Department, the longest of any age group. That is much worse than in August 1983, also after a deep recession, when someone unemployed in that age group spent an average of 27.5 weeks finding work.

At this year's pace of an average of 82,000 new jobs a month, it will take at least eight more years to create the 8 million positions lost during the recession. And that does not allow for population growth.

Advocates for the elderly worry that younger people are more likely to fill the new jobs as well.

"I do think the longer someone is out of work, the more employers are going to question why it is that someone hasn't been able to find work," said Sara Rix, senior strategic policy adviser at AARP, the lobbying group for seniors. "Their skills have atrophied for one thing, and technology changes so rapidly that even if nothing happened to the skills that you have, they may become increasingly less relevant to the jobs that are becoming available."

In four years of job hunting, Ms. Reid has discovered that she is no longer technologically proficient. In one of a handful of interviews she has secured, for an auditing position at the Port of Seattle, she learned that the job required skills in PeopleSoft, financial software she had never used. She assumes that deficiency cost her the job.

Ms. Reid is still five years away from being eligible for Social Security. But even then, she would be drawing early, which reduces monthly payments. Taking Social Security at 62 means a retiree would receive a 25 per cent lower monthly payout than if she worked until 66.

Ms. Reid is in some ways luckier than others. Boeing paid her a six-month severance, and she has health care benefits that cover her and her husband for $40 a month.

And she admits some regrets: she had a $180,000 balance in her 401(k) account, and paid $80,000 in penalties and taxes when she cashed it out early. She did not rein in her expenses right away. And now, her $500-a-week unemployment benefits have been exhausted.

She has since cut back, forgoing Nordstrom shopping sprees and theater subscriptions, but also cutting out red meat at home and putting off home repairs.

In order to qualify for accounting posts, she is taking an online training course in QuickBooks, a popular accounting software used by small businesses. She recently signed up for a tax course at an H&R Block tax preparation office in Seattle.

And Ms. Reid is plugging ahead with her current plan: to send out 600 applications to accounting firms in the area, offering her services for the next tax season. Eventually, she wants to open her own business.

With odd jobs and her husband's - albeit shriveled - earnings, she could stagger along. For now, she stitches together an income by gardening for neighbours, helping fellow church members with their computers, and participating in Internet surveys for as little as $5 apiece.

"You don't necessarily have to go through the door," Ms. Reid said. "You can go around it and go under it. I can be very creative. I think that I will eventually manage to pull this together."

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