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People over 50 working against time in America’s harsh job market

  • Minneapolis Star Tribune
  • Published Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014, at 12 a.m.


As hard as he tried, Michael Duffy couldn’t find a job to match the one he’d lost.

For two decades he earned six figures selling equipment to factories. But at 62, he kept getting turned away, one job interview after another.

So last fall he started at Starbucks.

He wears a green apron, wipes tables, staffs a cash register and banters with people who order an espresso breve or a Caramel Brulee Latte. He has natural rapport with customers, especially older ones; he enjoys winning people over and likes taking care of them.

But he makes less in a day than he did in a half-hour at the peak of his sales career.

“The pay isn’t what we would all hope,” Duffy, of Eden Prairie, Minn., said the day he started. “But it’s something to do and it’s great benefits and we’ll see where it goes.”

It has never been easy to get older, need a good full-time job and not have one. But that’s the predicament now for more Americans than ever, and the challenge has gotten steeper in the prolonged recovery. Millions of workers in their 50s and 60s are drifting into the perilous intersection of unemployment, underemployment and retirement.

“The situation is worse today than it has been in past recoveries,” said Sara Rix, a senior strategist at the AARP Public Policy Institute. “These men and women have little time to recover, and working later in life may be the only way some can make it.”

The unemployment rate for workers over 55 was higher during the recession than it had been for decades, though it has fallen to a still-high 4.5 percent. Older workers remain jobless on average for about a year, far longer than younger workers. Almost half of those over 55 who are unemployed have been so for six months or longer, a total of 761,000 people.

But unemployment is only part of the unwelcome picture. The number of workers over 55 who have dropped out of the labor force but say they still want a job is about 1.6 million, a 67 percent increase since 2007.

Finding ‘bridge jobs’

Fair or not, some employers question older applicants’ energy and enthusiasm, their technical knowledge, and their willingness to work with young people. A general bias against the long-term unemployed also works against older workers who have been jobless for months or years.

“If the economy were roaring ahead, it would be an easier sell,” said Kevin Cahill, an economist at the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College.

For decades, older workers commonly moved into what Cahill calls “bridge jobs” between their careers and retirement. But today, those jobs are less desirable, so more older workers are ending up in “bridge jobs” they didn’t want.

In 1991, when Duffy was in his early 40s and looking for work, he interviewed for three jobs and got three offers.

It seemed easy, and one employer told him a secret that still rings in his ears: He was the perfect age – old enough to have gravitas, young enough to carry the whiff of an up-and-comer.

He was a breadwinner and then some until 2007, traveling to St. Cloud and Memphis, Louisville and Los Angeles, sometimes doing million-dollar deals.

He and his wife, Elaine, put two children through private college, could afford to pay hundreds of thousands in medical costs for their son Ryan, 27, who was born with spina bifida, and built a home in a lovely part of Eden Prairie that’s outfitted for Ryan’s wheelchair.

Today, Duffy is the same guy with more experience – still physically fit and good with people. But after six years of intermittent employment, dozens of fruitless job interviews and quiet self-assessments on drives back home, he earns $7.75 an hour working part-time at the coffee shop. He hasn’t given up, but he has learned that in a sluggish labor market, his job candidacy has lost its shine.

The best-off Americans in retirement are the 36 percent who get income from a pension. But the share of workers with a pension has shrunk, and those who took early retirement in recent years often accepted a deal for a lesser pension.

Out of their control

The problems of older workers are a mix of things they can control and things they can’t. Sixty-four percent say they’ve either seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace, but they’re also up against a weak, changing job market and the well-established bias against hiring the long-term unemployed.

“There’s this perception that if you’ve been out of work for seven months, there must be something wrong with you,” said Rix, the AARP Public Policy Institute strategist.

Penny Skluzacek worked more than seven and a half years at a small medical device firm in Eden Prairie. She handled accounts receivable and collections and analyzed the creditworthiness of retailers who bought from the firm. The company’s ownership changed a few times before early 2013, and then management announced at an afternoon meeting that the office would relocate to Lake Forest, Ill., and everybody would lose their job.

Skluzacek, 54, stayed on until May, and since then she has applied for more than 40 jobs. Unlike many of her younger colleagues, she is still looking.

“All the people who were between 25 and 40, they got jobs very quickly,” Skluzacek said. “All the people 45 and over, it took them longer, and some of us are still looking.”

Improving the odds

Job seekers over 50 can improve their chances, said Kerry Hannon, author of “Great Jobs for Everyone 50(Plus).” Much of her advice boils down to humbling oneself and becoming more flexible.

Older workers should take LinkedIn seriously, posting a smiling photo and a clean resume to the networking site. They should get physically fit, pointedly ask friends and family members for job leads, and volunteer or join professional associations, Hannon said. Getting into the workforce, even for a less-than-ideal job, is often worth the pay cut.

Baby boomers too often believe that when employers look at their lengthy resumes, they will automatically see how special they are, she said.

“It was a generation where things came very easily for most people,” said Hannon, who is in her 50s. “If you achieved a certain level of education, got into a certain career path, we were still in the group where you did work for someone for 20-odd years.”

Older workers must put that mindset behind them and start to think about jobs the way younger workers do – not as permanent positions but as something more fluid.

“It’s OK to just take a job for a couple years,” she said. “You might have several jobs between 58 and 70.”

Duffy, the coffee shop worker, admits he has been shaken by his transition from family provider to discouraged job seeker, and he has become more conscious of his age.

When his manager at Starbucks asked for his date of birth for a background check when he was hired, he grimaced.

“Oh, that’s it,” he told her.

“Why?” the manager said.

“Well, no one’s hiring me,” he said.

“Oh, because of age discrimination,” she said.

“I don’t know if that’s it, but no one’s hiring me, and I figured once I have to give you my birth date, that’s the kiss of death,” he said.

She stopped him.

“Starbucks is lucky to have you,” she said. “Your connection to the customer is fantastic, and age doesn’t matter.”

Duffy asked if she was joking. But she wasn’t, and it felt good.

“That was pretty cool to hear when you send out 500 applications over eight months and you get nothing,” Duffy said. “It’s nice when someone throws you a bone.”

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