When I was 63 back in 2004, I found myself unemployed when the company I had been with for three years suddenly laid off a group of us. How they handled the firings was a nasty, humiliating business that no one deserves, and it got worse.
As my younger colleagues, talented but less experienced than I, found work in six, eight, 10 weeks or so, I couldn't get an interview. Indications of age discrimination turned up during my efforts but the other debilities of being jobless were too frightening for that to anger me at the time. Survival required that I ignore it.
Because I had been a contract employee, I was not ineligible for unemployment insurance. When savings were gone, I shuffled through credit card cash advances to pay the bills while robbing one credit card to pay others. The debt mounted to terrifying numbers.
Any of you who have been unemployed for a length of time know how small life becomes. You cancel subscriptions, stop going to the movies, never eat in restaurants and shop miserly for food. You make what you hope are plausible excuses when friends invite you for drinks or dinner and soon they stop calling. Your days are bleak no matter how bright the sun shines and you wonder how long you can hold on, afraid to think too closely about what will become of you.
In 2004, the unemployment rate was 5.5 percent, down slightly from the previous year and fairly average for a healthy economy. Today, the unemployment rate has been stuck at 9.6 percent for months.
According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, 14.8 million workers are unemployed. But that doesn't count the underemployed, part-timers who need full-time jobs and the discouraged people who have given up. Some put that total number at more than 26 million – about one in six workers.
Millions and millions of lives shattered. How many will never recover?
Without taking anything away from younger workers in this devastation, older workers 50 and above are in a dreadful position. They have spent their savings, 401(k)s and IRAs to keep afloat. How are they going to pay for their retirement which, for many, has already arrived whether they know it yet or not and they are still years from being old enough for Social Security.
And by the way, their Social Security benefits will be lower than anticipated due to long periods of unemployment during prime earning years.
Earlier this year, four people of disparate backgrounds created a multimedia project titled Over 50 and Out of Work. Since February, they have been traveling the U.S. to interview older, unemployed workers. As they state on their Facebook page, their project:
“...documents the stories and the impact of the Great Recession on jobless Americans, 50 and older. The stories that Boomers tell are not only about the hardships they have faced due to joblessness, but also about their hopes and fears, their expectations and disappointments, their resilience and their dreams.”
Their longer-term mission, they say,
”...is to help people who are over 50 and out of work get back into the labor force by improving the cultural perception of older workers and by influencing public policy changes that will make it easier for them to find re-employment.”
The interviews are beautifully shot and edited, the subjects are smart, articulate and this overview video is as uplifting in some ways as it is heartbreaking.
I was luckier than these people in that my long-term unemployment happened before the housing bubble burst and as much as it broke my heart to do so, I was able to sell my apartment in New York at a substantial profit, making up for the loss of my savings and paying off my debt. Until the day I die, I will be grateful that my unemployment happened before the crash; I do not want to imagine what my retirement would be like if it had not.
Few of today's older unemployed have the option I had and my heart breaks for them.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: Small-Town Saturday Night