We’re supposed to be treasured for our experience and wisdom once we hit our late 50s — but not enough to hire after we’re laid off.
A few months ago, I celebrated (if that’s the right word) my 58th birthday. Not coincidentally, I’m also closing in on two years of unemployment, having been laid off from my job in the music royalties field after almost a quarter century of faithful service. (I helped make sure that the composers of commercial jingles — the ones that force you to hit the mute button — got paid in a timely manner.)
(MORE: Laid Off at 60: What to Do Next)
Between a Job and Social Security
While I was also lucky enough to score the occasional freelance writing gig, from television promos to political commentary, many factors (most economic) have led to those opportunities drying up in the last decade.
Having been unable to find even part-time work, I look forward to going through the rest of my savings before tapping into my IRA — you know, the thing that was supposed to carry me into my alleged Golden Years — since I’m too young for Social Security.
Call me one of those “discouraged” unemployed folks you hear about. Discouraged, angry and scared.
Waking Up to Reality
Like a lot of people around my age, I really didn’t pay close attention to the unemployment situation until I was in the thick of it myself. It was only then that I started reading the heartbreaking stories of perfectly good workers in their 50s who, like me, were shown the door by middle managers all apparently sharing the title: Executive Vice President of Keeping My Own Job by Any Means Necessary.
After decades as a right-of-center kind of guy, I was shocked to wake up one day thinking, “Oh my God, now I know what Michael Moore has been talking about all this time.”
I’ve known several other people my age in this same situation, only one of whom has found another job.
As for the rest… well, one was a player in the advertising game until getting laid off seven years ago, at 55. The first year, he tried to get back into advertising. The second year, he looked for a managerial position. Since then, he’s been willing to do just about anything legal for a steady paycheck, from retail to stocking shelves at bookstores to working in a mailroom.
But employers would rather hire a fresh-faced high school graduate over someone who remembers, say, watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.
People like us, you see, are “overqualified” — a nice way of saying "over the hill" and without the scent of age discrimination.
If you don’t believe me, take a look at the workers at whatever business you walk into today. Very few wisps of grey hair are to be found, and that’s not because there’s been a sudden rush on henna.
One woman I spoke to expressed shock that employers would reject me in favor of someone without my track record of reliability, experience and maturity. That she, like most doctors, hires only 20-year-olds as receptionists was an irony lost on her.
Lucky to Have a Loving Wife
Now there are worse places to be unemployed than Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where my adman friend and I live. And we’re luckier than many, being married to women who are gainfully employed with good salaries and who love us.
Still, there are those 2 a.m. moments when we look at our spouses sleeping soundly that we think: This is not what they signed up for. And for all we know, they’re thinking the same thing when we go back to sleep.
Had he been single, my friend most likely would have had to move back with his elderly mother in Atlanta.
And I… well, I don’t know. I briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a marijuana deliveryman. It’s one profession where my age could actually work in my favor, since a skinny 58-year-old guy with thinning hair pretty much looks like the last person you’d expect to find carrying weed in his backpack. Only by making the mistake of bringing up the idea to my wife am I still gainfully unemployed.
What Rand Paul Doesn't Get
Earlier this year, likely Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul came out against the idea of extending unemployment benefits, saying it would be a “disservice” to jobless individuals because it would cause them “to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy.” What the honorable Senator from Kentucky isn’t taking into account is that people my age aren’t getting hired period.
Not that I’m asking for a lifetime of unemployment insurance. In fact, it was almost a relief when my benefits ran out so that highly-compensated Congressmen just returning from their free “fact-finding mission” in Acapulco could no longer accuse me of sponging off taxpayers. I guess they don’t like anyone else horning in on their act.
The state of New York, where I live, boasts about its many tax-free corporate zones. But that doesn’t change the fact that businesses have gotten used to making more money with a quarter of the workers doing five times the work at the same salary. And the most expensive employees — those who have been there longest — tend to be the first to get the axe.
Gloomy Forecast for the Future
I’m no sociologist but I predict if this trend keeps up (and, frankly, why shouldn’t it?), the next decade is going to see a spike in older people moving in with their adult children, becoming homeless or even committing suicide because they will have no other options.
Meanwhile, members of Congress — more than half of whom are millionaires — will continue to get reelected until they decide to “spend more time with their family” (i.e. collect six-figure speaking fees) or become lobbyists. Now that’s job security.
What is to be done with the over-50s?
My adman friend broached the idea of the government reviving the New Deal for us, providing jobs at what we do best or mentoring young people just getting into the workplace.
If I were mentoring a college grad, my advice would be: Forget your Art of the Middle Ages major. Become a plumber; everybody needs a plumber. They get paid even more than marijuana couriers.