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5 Lessons From People Who Lost Jobs After 50

Interviews with 100 unemployed Americans yield new insights about today's job market for older workers

By Susan Sipprelle and Samuel Newman | May 7, 2012

In early 2010, Susan Sipprelle and Samuel Newman began Over 50 and Out of Work, an online multimedia documentary project, to chronicle the impact of the Great Recession on laid-off boomers. Since then, they’ve traveled across the country conducting video interviews with 100 jobless Americans over 50. Their stories reveal the heavy emotional and financial toll the downturn has taken on them. Next Avenue asked Sipprelle and Newman what they’ve learned from the interviews.
 
Pam Buckley, 59, and her husband Bob, 55, lost their jobs on the same day: Jan. 12, 2009. She was a restaurant manager, and he was an air filtration equipment salesman.
 
When we interviewed Pam at her home in Berkley, Mich., in August 2010, she was desperately worried. “Our retirement is worth half of what it was last year,” she told us. "We’re upside down in our home, and we have all of these obligations, including a daughter, who is going to be a junior in college.”
 
In the past, seniority and experience helped older workers like Pam and Bob hang onto their jobs during economic downturns. But the Great Recession wiped out that kind of security.

Pam and Bob are just two of the 100 people we interviewed, all of them unemployed and over the age of 50. “I was shocked when I lost my job,” is the most frequent comment we heard.
 
Now let's take a closer look. Here are the five key insights we took away from our interviews:
 
It’s still extremely difficult for people over 50 to land full-time jobs like the ones they had. Despite recent improvements in the job market, only about a dozen of our 100 interview subjects have been able to return to work full-time with pay and benefits comparable to what they received before being laid off. Most of those who did get jobs wound up in the same field in which they were formerly employed, but not at the same level. Some found and accepted full-time jobs at one-third to one-half less than their previous salaries.
 
Several of the interviewees have been hired as independent contractors for a limited number of months or as commission-based salespeople, rather than as permanent full-time employees with health insurance and pensions.
 
The bottom line: Although the Great Recession was declared over in June 2009, most of our interview subjects remain severely underemployed, working full-time for considerably less than they earned in the past. Or they work part-time, often at more than one job to make ends meet. 
 
If you’re older than 50, you can’t count on job security in any field. Our project participants included bankers, teachers, carpenters, information technology project managers, bookkeepers, steelworkers and engineers. Manufacturing and construction were hit particularly hard by the Great Recession, but as we found, no industry was immune.
 
One of our interview subjects, Joe Price, had followed his father and grandfather into a job at a steel mill in Weirton, W. Va., expecting to earn a good living and enjoy a secure retirement. “My grandfather worked there for 40-plus years, probably never got laid off," said Price, 52. "My father worked there for 40-plus years, I don’t remember him ever getting laid off."
 
But Price’s 25-year career as a steelworker was strikingly different. Over the years he was laid off seven times, and his pension benefit was cut when the mill declared bankruptcy in 2003. After that, Price was forced to seek a career in an entirely new field. Today, he works in a Pennsylvania plant that manufactures solar mirrors.

Stories like Price's clearly showed how valuable it can be to diversify your skill set if you've put all your eggs in one basket and remained in the same field your entire career.
 
It's critical to have a rainy-day savings fund in case you do become unemployed after 50. Although Pam and Bob Buckley have returned to work, they devastated their savings to pay bills and keep their daughter in college while they were unemployed. “I really expected that there would come a time, based on my husband’s and my savings, when we could retire," Pam said. "Now, it’s never going to happen.”

The Buckleys, and others like them, offer a reminder about how important it is to save as much as possible while you're working. You never know when an emergency savings fund will be needed.
 
To make yourself more employable after 50, treat a job search itself as a full-time job. While they were out of work, the people we interviewed who are now employed worked tirelessly to make themselves stronger job candidates. They demonstrated to employers that they were engaged jobseekers with a willingness to work.
 
The interview subjects with post-layoff success stories had been proactive. They updated their resumes, went back to school for certification in a specific skill or to pick up a college degree, networked, participated in job support groups, took advantage of state or local job resources, worked part-time and volunteered. (Many of these steps are ones you should ideally take when you're still employed.)
 
Pam Buckley received certification as a project manager, volunteered in her community and worked closely with a counselor at MichiganWorks, her state’s workforce development system. With her counselor’s help, she landed a job as a catering sales coordinator for a food services company.
 
Many of the more proactive people we interviewed also used social media — particularly LinkedIn — to research job opportunities and network with friends and former colleagues at companies they targeted as potential employers.
 
If you lose your job after 50, don't give up hope. A large number of our interview subjects showed powerful resilience and optimism, and in the long run that's what pays off.
 
Pam Buckley was unemployed for nearly two years, but never gave up her determination to find a job. Her husband doggedly pursued work for six months before landing a position in his original field, air filtration sales.
 
“Keep trying,” said Donna Jadis, 60, a technical writer for an information security company who was out of work for 14 months in Antioch, Calif. “You can’t get a job if you’re not looking, though I understand how tempting it is just to give up.”

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