50+ and Working, But Underemployed contributed by Michael Goldfarb

Michael Goldfarb

Michael Goldfarb is an author, journalist and broadcaster. Michael spent the first part of his career in his native New York working in the theatre. He moved to London in 1985 where he began working as a freelance journalist primarily covering theatre and film for the Guardian and the BBC. Via the BBC, he began to work more regularly as a broadcast journalist and eventually began filing features for NPR.

London – I have spent my entire life trying to be a name not a number but now the numerical description of my existence is taking on increased importance.

It is five years since I was laid off from permanent employment on the wrong side of 50.  That’s a big number.  Half a decade on I am permanently a member of the category of “underemployed.”   I want to know how many more people like me there are.  I don’t want educated guesses about it.  I want to know how many people over 50 in the work force have lost their jobs; are working as consultants;  are living on their savings etc. I want to know how their earnings compare to what they made before entering the ranks of the underemployed.

And I want those numbers Bureau of Labor Statistics certified.

Because without a clear, objective statistical understanding of what “underemployment” really is remedies for those of us inhabiting this twilight world cannot be found.  Remedies are needed.  Because if I am correct and we are talking about millions more people than previously thought then the demographic time bomb posed by those of us born from the late forties to late fifties that America’s media have been warning of will detonate in mass poverty, not just of us, but our children.

Anecdotes can only gloss over the reality.  My story is a perfect example.  When I was laid off from WBUR, a public radio station in Boston, I was at the height of my career.  In the previous three years my journalistic work had won every major award available to a broadcast journalist. My first book had just been published and was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2005.

I spent a year pursuing journalism jobs, no full-time work materialized. Like the automotive manufacturing business in the 70’s  journalism was going through a massive downsizing.  Reporters and editors over 50 – the most expensive employees – were being bought out and laid off.

At the same time I outlined another book.  Simon and Schuster gave me a good advance to write it.  By doing occasional bits of journalism I could just about make ends meet.  OK, I thought that’s my job now.  I’m a self-employed small (very small) businessman.  No longer a wage slave.

But of course that is not quite the situation.  The book was published last year.  In the the two and a half years I was working on it the book business began to retrench the way the news business has.  I have no contract for another book and so I am working full time as a journalist.  In 2010 I calculate I have written approximately 60,000 words, the equivalent of writing 175 page book.  My output is approximately the same as it was when I worked for WBUR and before that NPR.  My earnings are 80 percent less.

To outsiders, including the IRS, I am a full time self-employed person.  To my readers – and I have more than a few when my stuff is published at BBC.com and Globalpost.com – I am a full-time journalist and still a very successful one. But the reality is that my earnings are so much less than they should be that I consider myself “underemployed.”  Full-time employment is not just about hours worked, it is about money earned.

I am certain that there are millions like me in many different fields.  People at the top of their professions who were laid off because they were over 50. They take stock, think that they worked too long and were too good at they did to simply walk away from the career they had chosen.   Their work ethic is undiminished, so they set themselves up in a freelance, self-employed capacity, work the same hours they always worked … probably even more since vacations don’t figure in our lifestyle.  To their neighbors they are wonderful examples of making the best of adversity.  But the reality is they are “underemployed.”

There are too many of us to know our names … but an accurate count of our numbers … that is something we should know.