Underemployment: A no-win struggle for older workers

Last Thursday, Over 50 and Out of Work testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension committee hearing Stories from the Kitchen Table:  How Middle Class Families are Struggling to Make Ends Meet.  Unfortunately, we were only asked one question, because we had so much more information on unemployment and underemployment that we were prepared to contribute to the hearing.

Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse asked what people do when their unemployment benefits run out.  In particular, he inquired about one of our R.I. interviewees, George Dys.  We responded that George is now scraping by on part-time jobs and continuing to deplete his dwindling savings.  George’s underemployed status is common, both for our interviewees and nationwide.

In May, the national unemployment rate was 9.1 percent, but the underemployment rate was 15.8 percent.  Of course, underemployment is tricky to measure, so the actual rate may be much higher.

At the present time, about 40 of our 100 interviewees are severely underemployed.  Their unemployment benefits have expired, and they are now cobbling together a living from one or more part-time jobs.  They continue to deplete any remaining savings they may have, including tapping into retirement funds; they sell their assets such as cars, furniture or collectibles, and they rely on family and friends to help them out when they are in dire need.  Several of our interviewees have also been forced to use food banks for the first time in their lives.

Recently, the New York Times addressed the topic of underemployment in Job Jugglers, on the Tightrope, but the story featured only younger workers, four 20-somethings.  Underemployment is even more challenging and frightening for older workers because they usually have higher living expenses, including mortgage payments, and families to support as well.

Elizabeth Zima, 57, of Calistoga, Calif., a former writer and editor on healthcare issues, now works part-time at three wineries.  She earns 50 percent of her former salary, no longer has health insurance, owes outstanding medical bills and cannot afford to pay her taxes.

Before the Great Recession, Bill Davis, 59, of Myrtle Beach, S.C., earned a six-figure income as an executive recruiter in the IT industry.   Now, he drives a cab at night. Demand for taxi service during the tourist season in Myrtle Beach allows him to make a meager living, but once the weather cools, his customers depart.  Fortunately, he is a veteran, so he has access to medical care, but he cannot afford to pay for his son to go to college.

Joel Nitzberg, 57, of Somerville, Mass., lost his job when the community education department he headed was eliminated to slash costs at a local college.  Joel found full-time work as a consultant, but his position does not offer benefits and ends on July 30.  When he and his wife were both out of work last summer, they experienced the terrifying feeling of living without the safety net of health insurance.  Happily, his wife was able to find a new full-time job in her field that provides health care coverage for the couple once again.

The Times story emphasized the new skills that the younger workers are gaining in their part-time jobs — multitasking, hyper-organization and enhanced knowledge of technology.

For our older interviewees, the underemployment they are enduring does not seem to be building their knowledge or skills.  Their part-time jobs do not help them regain their financial footing or build up their savings and financial security for their later years.

They struggle on, because as they say, what else can we do?


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essay-zone.com said:

EU struggles with long-term unemployment . A newly-published study shows that more than half of the 22 million unemployed people in the European Union have been jobless for a year or longer, with older people and low-skilled workers the most affected.

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Barbara said:

I was laid off after 32 years at the job - it relicated but my family is here in California - I'm scared poopless...plus making less money is a major concern especially since I have health issues... Any suggestions would be appreciated... Thanks in advance. - posted June 29, 2016

Susan Robens said:

Wow, stumbled onto this doc! Congrats for you kickstarter fundraising. I think that your idea shows the need for us over 50 to have a place to communicate that helps us not to feel so alone. 1) Are you thinking of doing follow up with the people in your stories? 2) Have you thought of going to film festivals? Personally, reading this made what I am going through clear. I lived abroad for 20 years, no problem working. At 53, I decided that it is time to return stateside because my children are graduating college and getting married. Time to re-settle...in my ignorance, I came with enough for a downpayment for a home, knowing that I would land a job and get re-settled. That was 3.5 years ago and I stopped counting the amount of applications, only 2 interviews. I have spent my downpayment to survive and am now living with my daughter and her boyfriend. Who knows for how long...and I realize that I will need "assistance" for the rest of my life...i.e. living with one of my children...augh at this rate and it is driving me crazy. My things are in storage and what a nightmare all this is for me. I thought that it was me, I was missing something somewhere on how to land a job in America. I thought that I was culturally disadvantaged. Now I see that it is the times. My mother who is 99 said, the difference between this depression (reality word) and the one she was in, was that society knew that it was the economy and helped each other. These days, they blame "you", and don't help. She is right. Our problem is the economy and the failings of our government and corporations to fill in the gap. Forcing extra charges for early withdrawl from the IRA is wrong because of the struggles in finding work for "older" people. Even 45 is too old. really? I get depressed, I feel hopeless, I am sad, can't sleep at night and keep a retail PT (they will not give over 30 hours...why?) low pay abusive bullying job that makes me cry in the lunch room. (Why are people so cruel at the workplace?) The problem is that we all feel stuck, with no way out, no programs or incentives to awaken the public's eyes on this situation...and by 2030 70 million people will be over 50 the situation will get much worse. I have tried, blogging, freelancer jobs, english content writing (all at very low pay...not much out there by the way), I understand, that I will not get a job. I must figure out something that I can create myself, not sure what that is with no money to invest. I have tried selling on Amazon, Ebay, photography (I was a professional award winning one, worldwide) ummm. not sure. It is correct, it does not matter our experience (as in many comments) it is sad that all the work and effort we have put in to build a better world , goes unappreciated by those who can hire and have real diversity in the workplace. It is a shame that our contribution through our experience is not embraced in corporate, mom and pop and anyplace else. Most baby boomers, grew up with the computer, cell phones and technology. They think that we cannot adapt to data publishing software? We are the ones who invented it! Again I say shame. I sure hope that I come up with some lovely idea, that will get me on my feet. Otherwise, I will have to say good-bye to my four children and two grandchildren and move back to another country to grow old and die there. Shame again. Signed, depressed, and more so. feeling very alone. It takes a village and we have lost ours.

mica said:

I need to find a job soon, my husband think im to old (52) and I feel abused and miss treated by him, i need to work and be free one day. - posted May 21, 2016

Bill said:

I recently came across an article that summarizes our situation from top to bottom...bottom to top; here is the link: http://www.brookings.edu/research/articles/2012/07/longterm-unemployment-burtless. The article is somewhat long and a bit technical, but everyone will gain understanding from reading it. My question remains...the problems and solutions have been identified...why is it not being addressed?

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