How to Help the Older Long-Term Unemployed
Recommendations from a Next Avenue Influencer In Aging
Editor’s note: This article is part of Next Avenue’s 2015 Influencers in Aging project honoring 50 people changing how we age and think about aging. Here, Ofer Sharone, one of the Influencers and an assistant professor at University of Massachusetts - Amherst, discusses what's needed to assist older long-term unemployed men and women.
In my research of long-term unemployment among 50+ workers, I frequently hear stories like Ken’s.
Ken graduated from MIT with a degree in math, and for over 30 years had a very successful career as a software engineer. Three years ago, he was laid off — together with hundreds of other workers — following a merger. Ken began his search for a new position with much confidence given his in-demand skills.
But since the layoff, Ken has depleted his retirement savings and last year, he was forced to sell his house. Today Ken works at a retail store in a position that pays a little above the minimum wage and makes no use of his skills.
Ken’s story is sadly all too common. Nearly half of all unemployed workers over 55 become trapped in long-term unemployment, meaning that they have been searching for work for at least 27 weeks.
Financial Pain, Emotional Pain
Long-term unemployment puts workers and their families at great risk for losing their homes and life savings. What's more, as my recent book, Flawed System, Flawed Self: Job Searching and Unemployment Experiences, shows, the financial fallout for many of these 55+ job seekers is matched by the emotional pain of being excluded from meaningful participation in economic life.
One important reason that older workers are more likely than younger workers to get trapped in long-term unemployment is unfounded employer stereotypes.
While some employers fear that older workers will not stick around in their jobs, my research (involving in-depth conversations with hundreds of unemployed job seekers) suggests just the opposite. I’ve learned that no group of employees is more committed than older workers to contributing to a company that gives them a chance to prove their value.
In addition to age discrimination, those who get trapped in long-term unemployment must confront another distinct barrier: discrimination based on duration of unemployment.
What HR Recruiters Say
In confidential interviews, HR recruiters have told me that in the absence of a referral, older long-term unemployed job seekers often face an uphill battle when competing with currently-working younger applicants. Research confirms that the likelihood of an employer inviting a job seeker for an interview is lower for someone with relevant experience but long-term unemployed than someone lacking relevant experience but who is not long-term unemployed.
For older workers like Ken, these hiring patterns mean financial disaster. But for society, they represent an enormous waste of experience and talent. Such outcomes also violate a basic premise of meritocracy: that hiring should be based on one’s ability to do the job, not his or her age or current employment status.
What can be done?
The persistence of long-term unemployment among older Americans suggests that simply appealing to companies’ self-interest in finding talented workers is not enough.
Recommendations to Deal With This National Problem
A step in the right direction would be passing laws that make it illegal to discriminate against workers based on unemployment duration. While anti-discrimination laws are difficult to enforce, as evident from today's pervasive age discrimination, they would nonetheless send a clear moral message that it violates the American values of meritocracy and equal opportunity to engage in hiring practices which systematically exclude from consideration workers who are (for whatever reason) long-term unemployed.
Moreover, funding the expansion of effective support interventions can make a dramatic and immediate difference to the prospects and well-being of millions of older American workers, as my current research with the Institute for Career Transitions (ICT) reveals.
A range of other policies can make a difference, too, but all of these steps require proactive and concerted action.
Long-term unemployment among older Americans is disastrous for workers and society, and the time to address this issue is long overdue.