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Why More Older Workers Are Becoming Unemployed As Retirement Nears

Jaye Crist, 59, now works three jobs for 70% of his former income

By Paul Solman, Diane Lincoln Estes, and PBS NewsHour

(This article originally appeared on the PBS NewsHour site.)

Older man on bench
Credit: Adobe

Judy Woodruff: Many Americans say they focus on saving for retirement when they reach their fifties. But what happens if you lose your job at that age?

Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, and his producer, Diane Lincoln Estes, look at that challenge as part of our Making Sense series Unfinished Business.

Paul Solman: Every morning, fifty-nine-year-old Jaye Crist leaves his home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and drives to work at a local print shop.

Jaye Crist: I'm a fulfillment associate fulfilling individual orders, and then making sure that all the product that is printed and needs to be distributed locally is delivered, so, like a delivery driver.

"We found that more than half, fifty-six percent, of workers experience an involuntary employer-related job separation after age fifty."

Solman: Crist spent his career in a higher echelon of the printing industry than this. For almost thirty years, Crist was a manager at printing giant RR Donnelley.

Crist: I have always supervised, always managed. And there was part of me, like, this — I will be one of those guys that retires here.

Solman: No such luck. He was laid off in 2016, his plans derailed when the firm reorganized.

Economist Richard Johnson's work has shown that Crist is far from alone.

Richard Johnson: We found that more than half, fifty-six percent, of workers experience an involuntary employer-related job separation after age fifty.

Solman: Crist, who'd made a hundred thousand dollars a year, began looking for a comparable job. But he soon realized:

Crist: Where I had been after all those years, with salary and benefits and things, was what I was going to get if I stayed here.

But also, at the same time, I'm looking at — I still had kids in school. I had bought a house, all the things that kind of hold you to a place.

Solman: Crist is a case in point of what, in our ostensibly booming economy, so many workers in their fifties and older face these days, says professor Teresa Ghilarducci.

Teresa Ghilarducci: They're less mobile. Older workers are sticky to their geographical place. They have relationships with people in the community. They have a house, for all the reasons that we all know. And so, they can't move to get a better job.

Solman: Crist also faced another hurdle shared with Americans turning his age, fifty-nine, four hundred of us every single minute.

Crist: A lot of companies don't want to hire somebody who's fifty-plus and needs — you know, has a salary expectation that's above what they're willing to pay. So, they can easily say it's because of salary or wage.

Solman: Crist only found the job at local H&H Printing after about a year of looking.

Crist: Had to take a heck of a cut in pay, but I was happy about it. It's hourly. It's about forty thousand dollars a year.

Solman: That's not unusual, says Richard Johnson.

Johnson: Almost all workers who lose a job at older ages end up making much less on the new job than they did on the old job. We found that only ten percent of people earned as much on the new job as on the old job, and, on average, they tended to earn only about half as much.

Solman: Crist's printing job doesn't pay enough, so he also works nights, from seven-thirty to two a.m., at Planet Fitness for twelve dollars an hour.

Crist: If it's your front counter service, and you're checking people in, and you're helping them — you know, helping them with their memberships. So, it's about four-and-a-half-hours of sleep during the week that I'm getting.

Solman: Half-a-night's sleep, and then back to H&H Printing.

Crist: If I wanted to lay down right now and fall asleep, it would be easy.

Solman: But he can't, not even on Sundays, when Crist heads to a third job at a local brewery.

Crist: It's nice to get, you know, a little bit of cash for tips, because it's just a minimum-wage job otherwise, because then you have a little extra money, and you're not waiting, you know, between paychecks, and having to manage all of that.

Solman: With three jobs, plus a fourteen-thousand-dollar-a-year pension from RR Donnelly, Crist still brings in barely seventy percent of his previous income.


"Traditional retirement, as for so many once-secure older Americans, is out of the question."

Crist: Can I manage to continue to work this many hours, these many — this many jobs? My mind says I can, I will, I have to. If I start thinking I can't or it's too hard, then, mentally, I don't — I wouldn't — you wouldn't be able to manage it.

So, so long as I'm, you know — stay healthy and can manage it, and — I will have to.

Solman: Crist's younger daughter is in college. His wife's depression and anxiety have worsened since his layoff, preventing her from working.

Crist: I see my wife and her — you know, the depression and the physical things that she's gone through.

And so, there's that part of it, too, just the economics of, you know, care, medicine these days is just — it's outrageous. It's like we're — you — so, I try not to think about that, because that almost would put you over the edge. You just do whatever you got to do to keep everything else afloat. But…

Solman: So, many older workers are struggling to do just that, says Ghilarducci.

Ghilarducci: When you look at real lives, and you see the turmoil in their work life between, let's say, [age] fifty-nine to sixty-three, and their health, there's a lot of shocks that are going on with their spouse and with themselves, because they're interdependent.

Solman: Which raises the stakes for workers like Jaye Crist to stay healthy.

Crist: I was unloading off of one of the trucks and fell onto my shoulder and back. Thank God I didn't break anything, I didn't, you know, tear anything, I didn't cut anything. I didn't lose any days of work. And it wasn't you know — it was — I was just lucky as hell. And then I thought, man, that's all it would've taken.

Solman: Traditional retirement, as for so many once-secure older Americans, is out of the question.

Crist: I pretty much blew through all of the 401(k) stuff I had.

So, at this point, here's, there's like really no savings. I mean, this — the house, and still paying a mortgage on it is — that's what I have. It's frustrating that, you know, in my mind, somebody who's done the things you kind of were told as a kid and as you were growing up you needed to do, you know, stay at a job, work, learn, you know, be helpful, get promotions, do right by people.

And then you find yourself at this point in your career, like, going, that doesn't mean (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

Solman: Crist now understands what he didn't when he was in the manager's seat.

Crist: I had to lay off an entire family, a husband, and wife and daughter. And I — prior to that, I kept telling them, you guys need to try to do something. You need to try to find something.

Now I find myself in that situation, like, going, that's that wasn't really helpful to be able to say those things, because you can't just go out, find another job. And I was the guy who laid them off. And at least I'm not that (EXPLETIVE DELETED) anymore.

Solman: No, he's not. Jaye Crist works more, is paid less. And now that a third of the work force is fifty-plus, there figure to be many more like him.

For the PBS NewsHour, this is Paul Solman.

Paul Solman is the business and economics correspondent for PBS NewsHour.  He has taught at Harvard Business School and his alma mater, Brandeis University, and now teaches at Yale and Gateway Community College. His reporting has won multiple Peabody and Emmy awards. He is co-author of Social Security, Get What's Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security. Read More
Diane Lincoln Estes is a producer at the PBS NewsHour, where she works on economics stories for Making Sen$e. Read More
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