Sheila Cooper said she’s just looking for a receptionist or some other administrative job. “I just want a job that I can go to every day and earn a paycheck,” she said in a video for the Over 50 and Out of Work project.
Cooper said she and her husband are both facing unemployment after living paycheck-to-paycheck. Their two sons, ages 19 and 23 are both special needs, but because their house is in foreclosure, they had to start charging their son’s rent to bolster the money she’s getting from unemployment.
Stories like Cooper’s gathered by the Over 50 and Out of Work group aim to bring attention to the problem of unemployment for those who are nearing retirement but not ready or able to retire.
Director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University Professor Andrew Sum noted in a video for the site that, though older workers were slightly more likely to keep their jobs in the economic recession, they also had a much harder time finding employment again if they did get laid off. The average amont of time workers over 55 remained jobless was about 44 weeks.
“We’ve never seen anything like 44 weeks in our history,” he said. “We’re talking about a length of unemployment we’ve never seen.”
Sara Rix, senior strategic policy advisor at the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), reinforced the challenges that older workers face. Though unemployment numbers for older workers are usually lower than the general population — the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts it at 6.2 percent as of July 2012 versus the 8.2 percent nationally — those numbers can also be misleading because older workers may just drop out of the labor force entirely if they lose their jobs, dipping into retirement savings or Social Security to make ends meet. BLS found that 49 percent of workers over 65 had dropped out of the labor force entirely.
“There are a lot of reasons why this age group might have trouble finding employment. There isn’t just one reason,” Rix told Raw Story. But though the reasons are vast, certainly age discrimination can be a factor.
“It’s very, very hard to prove age discrimination in the workplace because most employers aren’t going to admit they do something against the law,” she said but she noting that one study published in the Journal of Human Resources found that when researchers sent out identical resumes for job listings that controlled only for an applicant’s age, younger workers were 40 percent more likely to receive a callback for an interview.
This is often due to the fact that stereotypes about older workers persist, like the belief that many older people do not understand technology and refuse to adapt to new skills. “We know people who harbor those concerns are wrong,” Rix said. “Employers … too often think that they’re not going to get their training investment return from training older workers.”
The NAACP also conducted a survey (PDF) in August of last year that found for workers over 50 who were looking for work or had recently left the labor force. They found that “nearly three-fourths of survey respondents were either not too confident (36 percent) or not at all confident (36 percent) that they could find a good job with good pay or benefits in the next six months.” And of workers who still managed to keep their jobs, more than half don’t feel confident about financial security in retirement.
Workers who slip out of the labor force may find themselves trying to volunteer their way to work, like Robert Argue, a veteran who has been working with nonprofit homeless service groups. He’s dedicated to working on poverty and homelessness, but has been searching for full-time employment since even before the recession began.
At first, he thought he wanted to make a career change and went back to school to be a paralegal. But the for-profit college he attended, Brown Mackie in South Bend Indiana, to get his certification, misled him about their ability to place him in a job.
“I have completely given up on the legal field,” he told Raw Story. It was after that that he began working with nonprofits on social justice issues, but like many nonprofits, they don’t have the funding for many full time employees. “I have an agency now that would love to hire me,” he said, but they’re struggling to pay for other expenses.
Folks like Argue and Cooper look to find meaningful work in their last years, but all too often run up against big barriers. But Argue says he’s optimistic. He likes what he’s doing now, and he thinks others could learn from his strategy. “A lot of the problem is that we’re so focused on ourselves that we’re not reaching out and trying to help other people and trying to get other people’s perspectives,” he said.
Kay Steiger is the managing editor of Raw Story. Her contributions have appeared in The American Prospect, The Atlantic, Campus Progress, The Guardian, In These Times, Jezebel, Religion Dispatches, RH Reality Check, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @kaysteiger.
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