Superficially, the latest unemployment numbers showed some good news for workers age 55 and older: 203,000 more of them were employed in April than in March and the unemployment rate for the group remained steady at 6.5 percent.
The improvement doesn’t tell us what kind of jobs these are or how much they pay; nevertheless, let’s hope the uptick continues.
The bad news is that the average duration of unemployment for this age group is now up to 53.6 weeks compared with 39.4 weeks for workers younger than 55. Remember, that’s “average.” Many job seekers go much longer without employment and business surveys show that some employers refuse to hire the unemployed.
Also, these statistics do not count the number of part-time workers who want full-time work, nor the full-time under-employed at dramatically lower salaries than before, nor discouraged workers who have stopped looking for jobs, nor the number of 62-year-olds who, during our three-year recession, have been forced into taking early, lower-paying Social Security.
What other problems afflict the age 55-plus unemployed?
Unemployment insurance does not, nor is it intended, to cover all living expenses and many have used up whatever life savings they had that was not depleted in the 2008 crash.
In looking for work elders face age discrimination. Yes, it is illegal but it is widespread and “failure to hire” is pretty much impossible to prove even if there were money for an attorney.
An indication of age discrimination’s prevalence are the numbers from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In 2007, there were 16,134 age discrimination filings; in 2010, the number was 23,264.
Pre-2008, some elder unemployed could have sold their homes to extract the equity they had built up over years but, of course, most mortgaged homes are under water now and that is not an option.
And there is no telling how many 55-an-older unemployed lost their homes to foreclosure – even those with standard, pre-subprime mortgages – because they could not keep up payments while unemployed. I wonder how many have become homeless.
All these facts and numbers can be numbing and worse, they don’t tell us anything about the real people behind them. Not long ago, I received an email from a Time Goes By reader who places his wife and himself among what he calls the “mobile homeless.”
When “John” – a renter, not home owner – lost his PR business representing builders due to the housing crash, he and his wife paid cash from their small savings for a used mobile home, a fixer-upper. “My wife called it ‘depression housing,’” says John, “and she wasn’t far off the mark.”
”We still thought we’d rent (too) and I’d make it on Social Security plus a few PR accounts. But when everything crashed in real estate, that became a problem. When we checked the papers in the Chicago area, nothing was within our affordable rent range with just Social Security as income.”
A realtor told John about an RV park in central Illinois,
”…a little campground nestled in a nice forest with a private lake. It had single family homes all around the lake; there was an RV park attached and a group of homes that were basically trailers with additions built onto them.
“This was more in our price range and…before we knew it, we had bought a [trailer] home for $16,000 that didn’t need much fixing up.”
Because the camp ground does not want to be classified as a trailer park, people in that RV park can live there only from April through November. So John and his wife travel to RV parks for the rest of the year. John continues:
”We moved into the campground last April 2010 and have completed one ‘rotation’ as what we laughingly refer to as mobile homeless since we can’t live in our home all year and don’t want to live in the RV as a full timer, though many do, thanks to the economy.
“With no mortgage or RV payments to make, we can meet our regular food, gas and repair and utility bills, although it’s still a tight squeeze sometimes. So there’s one way a couple coped with the penny-pinchingness of Social Security.
It seems to me John is remarkably upbeat about his unexpected, unplanned downsizing.
Which brings me to another difficulty 55-and-older workers face thanks to long-term, high unemployment or underemployment: their Social Security benefit will be reduced – permanently – due to needing to enroll early at 62 or to years with zero income.
I have a lot of sympathy for young people just out of college, eager to begin their careers but unable to find work in their fields of interest or any work at all. But they do have 40 or more years ahead of them to build a nest egg for their future retirement.
Elders, however, have not only been forced from the workplace too young, it has happened during their prime saving years when, with the children grown, they should have been able to put aside more for their retirement while building up – or, at least, maintaining – their salaries for their Social Security benefit.
One-third of Social Security recipients rely on the program for 90 percent of their retirement income. Sixty-three percent depend on Social Security for half their income.
A generation of elders, many who planned well for their old age, will be penny-pinching until they die through no fault of their own. Meanwhile, the bankers and other corporations have recovered to pre-recession levels and still our leaders in Washington refuse to utter the word “jobs” – only “shared sacrifice.”
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jeanne Waite Follett: Why We Celebrate