July Stay Thirsty Column: Over 50 and Out of Work Goes to Washington

For the past 16 months, filmmaker Sam Newman and I have traveled across the country using video to chronicle the stories of unemployed older Americans. As the project progressed, our mission expanded. We wanted our 100 Stories to improve the cultural perceptions of older workers and influence public policy to make it easier for them to find re-employment.

Our project dispels the myth that jobless older workers would prefer to receive unemployment benefits rather than work. Our interviewees, who were not pre-screened or scripted, are determined to return to the labor force. Their aim is to regain their financial security and to become contributing members of the economy once again. Their life stories, focused on their current unemployed status, are eloquent and moving.

Our project participants have adapted to changing labor market conditions by learning new job-hunting techniques, networking and volunteering (both to do good and to build connections), upgrading their skills and enhancing their education. Even so, given the sluggish state of the economy, the outcome of their lengthy job searches has not been rosy.

Only seven of our interviewees have been able to return to full-time positions at salaries comparable to what they earned previously. Most are severely underemployed and about one-third remain jobless. These job search results mirror the findings of an ongoing national unemployment survey that is being conducted by the center for workforce development at Rutgers University.

As we approached our goal of documenting 100 stories, we reached out to elected officials about Over 50 and Out of Work and the issues it has revealed, including the erosion of job security, financial hardship, strained marriages and family relationships, foreclosure, lack of health insurance, dependence on children or on parents to help defray mortgage and living expenses, and the inability to pay for children’s college education.

We tried to email all 50 governors, 100 senators and 435 members of Congress. This effort turned out to be a disheartening endeavor.

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