As the new year begins, a paper mill worker from Little Chute, Wisc., a steelworker from Weirton, W. Va., an engineer from Cape Coral, Fla., an auto parts maker from Otter Lake, Mich., an information technology consultant from Piscataway, N.J., a carpenter from Las Vegas, Nev. and a social worker from Somerville, Mass. share two characteristics with 3.5 million other Americans: They are 50 years or older and unemployed.
Since the start of last year, I have been traveling around the country with a team, conducting video interviews for our multimedia documentary project, called Over 50 and Out of Work.
The Americans we have interviewed have lost their jobs, and, sometimes, their home, spouse, friends and self-image. What they haven’t lost, amazingly, is hope.
Most people who are 50-plus and jobless must return to work. They aren’t looking for jobs to keep their minds sharp or for social interaction or to occupy leisure time. They are looking for work because they need a job that will provide both current income and help rebuild their savings. They take job hunting seriously, describe it as a full-time job, and often express a willingness to relocate or to take a cut in pay for the opportunity to return to work. They know they have to overcome age discrimination to get rehired.
They know how it feels to send out hundreds of resumes that have been updated and revised to incorporate the last jobseeking tips and still get no response. No response at all, not even notification that their application was received. They know first-hand how it feels to stand in line with hundreds of other applicants, trying to be chosen for one of the two or three jobs that have become available. They know how it feels to go back to school, attend classes with twenty-year-olds and then still not get a job when they graduate with new skills.
When our interviewees describe their life and work histories, they talk about desegregation and the civil rights movement, Vietnam, women’s liberation, the decline of U.S. manufacturing, Reaganomics, corporate mergers and restructuring, outsourcing, 9/11 and globalization. They are boomers, and their life stories piece together a fascinating mosaic of the last half-century of American cultural and economic history.
Despite their accumulated life experience and years of on-the-job knowledge, however, our interviewees do not get back to work quickly. They know that the longer they are out of work, the more difficult it becomes for them to get rehired. The average length of time that older workers are unemployed has crept up to 45 weeks – longer than for any other age group. And, sometimes, their persistence and dogged hope pays off.
“ I know I have to get up the next day, and do it again, and I will continue to do so, until I get a job. I don’t care how long it takes, but I will eventually get a job …” said Stephen M., 60, last March. At the time, the former printing industry salesman from Massapequa, N.Y., had already been out of work for 18 months. He could no longer afford health insurance and had been forced to decimate his savings to care for his family.
At last, this past November, Stephen found a full-time position with a company on Long Island that provides records destruction and shredding services.
Pam B., 58, a restaurant manager from Berkley, Mich. and her husband, an auto parts salesman, both lost their jobs on the same day in January 2009. They were distressed that they might not be able to pay their daughter’s college tuition. They economized, went without health insurance, borrowed from family members and drew down their retirement savings to get by, but Pam had to find a job to help restore the family’s finances. She sent out hundreds of resumes, attended classes on project management and sought out job search counseling help.
“I would be glad to take a cut in pay, just to be able to work right now,” Pam said in August 2010.
Last October, Pam was hired as a project manager by a company in the landscaping industry.
Joe P., 50, a third-generation steelworker from Weirton, W. Va., has been laid off 10 times since he started working in the mill in 1986. In 2008, he was laid off for two years, then he was called back to work for two weeks, only to be laid off again in January 2010. While out of work, Joe earned an associate’s degree in fiber optics and applied for dozens of jobs, but he could not find new employment in the Ohio River Valley. He was becoming increasingly frustrated when we interviewed him in his home last May.
In December 2010, Joe was hired as a maintenance mechanic by a company that produces solar glass for industrial and automotive use.
“It’s an up and coming industry,” Joe wrote in an email, “and their complex is far and away a lot cleaner and work conditions would be better than my old job.” He is currently on a 90-day probationary period for the new position.
Most of our interviewees have not yet been able to find jobs, so not all the real-life, unscripted stories we are documenting in Over 50 and Out of Work have the happy endings that Stephen M., Pam B., and Joe P. have been able to produce for themselves. Nevertheless, many continue to pursue re-employment with grit, determination and their own individual variety of hope. They belie the generational stereotype that they are self-indulgent and self-absorbed. They rely on their own work ethic, their family and friends, their faith, the lessons they have learned from their parents and grandparents or their battered belief in the United States to see them through the tough times they are enduring and hope they will succeed in the New Year.