Even as the national unemployment rate has remained elevated compared to its pre-financial-crisis level, workers aged 55 years and older have enjoyed a much lower rate of joblessness when compared with younger Americans.
Unfortunately, this scenario is a double-edged sword. While many employees of the baby boomer generation lucky enough to have secure jobs are continuing to work, often past the traditional retirement age of 65, those who lose their jobs during midlife are not so lucky. Many of these workers are now faced with becoming a special subset of the long-term unemployed: the permanently jobless.
A desperate situation
Being out of work for 27 consecutive weeks will earn you the moniker "long-term unemployed", but for older workers, the situation is more dire. While many younger workers experience loss of employment for about 34 weeks, those over 55 suffer joblessness for an average of 45 weeks.
Why are things so very tough for the older crowd? A few theories exist, all of which have some merit. Some point to age discrimination, noting that complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have shot up markedly since the onset of the financial crisis. Others note that employers doubt older workers' ability to catch up with workplace technology, or worry that their skills have become too rusty overall.
Another issue is the job search itself. As the authors of a recent Brookings Institution study on long-term unemployment point out, when the longtime unemployed do achieve reemployment, it is generally in the same type of occupation from which he or she was originally laid off. Since the financial crisis, there has been a disconnect between the number of vacancies and the people yearning to fill them – with the latter outnumbering the former. This would also account for the increasing numbers of older workers forced to return to the workforce in low-paying jobs when their job search yields nothing in their field.
Hanging on for dear life
At the same time that so many boomers are experiencing a job drought, others are planning to work well past age 65 due to financial constraints, some brought about by the financial crisis. Those who lost retirement savings, or even their homes, are now clinging to their existing jobs in order to put food on the table. Many of these workers are experiencing health problems, and are extremely stressed.
A recent Gallup poll shows that financial concerns are the likeliest reason for older workers to say that they plan to work past age 65 – with the respondents feeling the least confident about their situation saying that they don't expect to retire until age 73.
Is the problem of the long-term unemployed – particularly those 55 and older – solvable? As long as there are too many people chasing too few vacancies, it seems unlikely. The sunniest scenario, according to Alan Krueger, one of authors of the study for the Brookings Institution, is a robust economic recovery. But even so, Krueger admits, many of the chronic jobless are simply going to be left behind.