Although prolonged unemployment is tough for any worker, it’s especially hard on people at midlife who are often forced to dip into retirement savings and change their lifestyles in order to make ends meet. And it’s much more difficult to become employed again. Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, says the situation for those unemployed and over 55 “is very severe. That group has the longest duration of unemployment.”
Although the number fluctuates, Van Horn says there are “at least a couple of million people” over age 55 in the category of long-term unemployed—defined as more than six months–and at least half of those have been unemployed for over a year. “From a national perspective it’s a small number—the labor market is 150 million people—but it’s a small number experiencing a severe problem,” says Van Horn. “In the research we did between 2009-2011 only 15 percent of those we surveyed were able to find a full-time job within a year.”
“Even though it’s illegal, this group faces age discrimination, a sense by employers that a younger worker can work harder and will have had more recent training and more technical skills,” says David Blustein, a professor of counseling psychology and an expert in unemployment and career development at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. And if they do find work, older workers will likely be earning less than they did before losing their job.
Still, the news isn’t all doom-and-gloom. Those over 50 often worked in leadership roles before becoming unemployed and have skills and industry knowledge that can’t be replaced. That gives them unique options, says executive recruiter Sharon Hulce, president of Employment Resource Group in Appleton, Wisconsin and author of the forthcoming book, A Well-Done Professional Midlife Crisis.
A Light in the Tunnel
“I think we’re just starting to see a shift in the re-employment challenges faced by those over 50. In many industries there aren’t enough experienced workers,” says Hulce. At midlife, workers have a solid awareness of their skills and can brainstorm options like consulting, project-based or part-time work, even entrepreneurship. When Hulce looked back at her firm’s hiring placement record, she found that more than 60 percent of candidates over 50 in 2011 and 2012 took more than six months to find a placement, some longer than that. “By 2013 though, things got much better, and we placed all of them. It was almost like a faucet got turned on January first,” she says.