Left Behind

Lost in the economic recovery

Over 50, working against time in America's harsh job market

  • Article by: ADAM BELZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 4, 2014 - 9:25 AM

Older workers face a tough hunt for new jobs in a slow-moving recovery, and the clock is ticking.

As hard as he tried, Michael Duffy couldn’t find a job to match the one he’d lost.

For two decades he earned six figures selling equipment to factories. But at 62, he kept getting turned away, one job interview after another.

So last fall he started at Starbucks.

He wears a green apron, wipes tables, mans a cash register that he’s gradually learning and banters with people who order an espresso breve or a Caramel Brulée Latte. He has natural rapport with customers, especially older ones, enjoys winning people over and likes taking care of them.

But he makes less in a day than he did in a half-hour at the peak of his sales career.

“The pay isn’t what we would all hope,” Duffy, of Eden Prairie, said the day he started. “But it’s something to do and it’s great benefits and we’ll see where it goes.”

It has never been easy to get older, need a good full-time job and not have one. But that’s the predicament now for more Americans than ever, and the challenge has gotten steeper in the prolonged recovery. Millions of workers in their 50s and 60s are drifting into the perilous intersection of unemployment, underemployment and retirement.

“The situation is worse today than it has been in past recoveries,” said Sara Rix, a senior strategist at the AARP Public Policy Institute. “These men and women have little time to recover, and working later in life may be the only way some can make it.”

The unemployment rate for workers over 55 — while falling — is still higher than it was for 25 years before the Great Recession, at 5.1 percent. Older workers remain jobless on average for about a year, far longer than younger workers. Almost half of those over 55 who are unemployed have been so for six months or longer, a total of 761,000 people.

But unemployment is only part of the unwelcome picture. The number of workers over 55 who have dropped out of the labor force but say they still want a job is about 1.6 million, a 67 percent increase since 2007.

Fair or not, some employers question older applicants’ energy and enthusiasm, their technical knowledge, and their willingness to work with young people. A general bias against the long-term unemployed also works against older workers who have been jobless for months or years.

“If the economy were roaring ahead, it would be an easier sell,” said Kevin Cahill, an economist at the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College.

For decades, older workers commonly moved into what Cahill calls “bridge jobs” between their careers and retirement. But today, those jobs are less desirable, so more older workers are ending up in “bridge jobs” they didn’t want.

“The difference, now, post-2008, is that a lot of these transitions are involuntary,” Cahill said. “It’s a huge shift, and it’s the impact of the Great Recession.”

The perfect age

In 1991, when Duffy was in his early 40s and looking for work, he interviewed for three jobs and got three offers.

It seemed easy, and one employer told him a secret that still rings in his ears: He was the perfect age — old enough to have gravitas, young enough to carry the whiff of an up-and-comer.

He was a breadwinner and then some until 2007, traveling to St. Cloud and Memphis, Louisville and Los Angeles, sometimes doing million-dollar deals.

He and his wife, Elaine, put two children through private college, could afford to pay hundreds of thousands in medical costs for their son Ryan, 27, who was born with spina bifida, and built a home in a lovely part of Eden Prairie that’s outfitted for Ryan’s wheelchair.

Today, Duffy is the same guy with more experience — still youthful, physically fit, good with people. But after six years of intermittent employment, dozens of fruitless job interviews and quiet self-assessments on drives back home, he earns $7.75 an hour working part-time at the coffee shop. He hasn’t given up, but he has learned that in a sluggish labor market, his job candidacy has lost its shine.

“It’s kind of like the baseball player who hits his late 30s,” he said, “and realizes he’s just not wanted anymore.”

Unable to retire

Of the 1.3 million claims for unemployment made after a permanent layoff in Minnesota since 2007, 353,000 were filed by people over 50. And the share of claims coming from older workers is growing.

The best-off Americans in retirement are the 36 percent who get income from a pension. But the share of workers with a pension has shrunk, and those who took early retirement in recent years often accepted a deal for a lesser pension.

One example is Ricky Brown, who had the kind of lucrative blue-collar career that’s disappearing in America. He sometimes earned as much as $3,000 a week — including overtime — when he worked at Ford Motor Co.’s Twin Cities Assembly Plant in St. Paul, and he lived a life commensurate with his income.

At shift’s end, he would stop at the Lunds grocery store near the factory, where he routinely bought up to $70 worth of shrimp, scallops, lamb and chicken for his signature dish, a variation on paella. He and his girlfriend packed his Crown Victoria and drove to Duluth for dinner on the weekend or to Turtle Lake, Wis., for a lunch of prime-rib sandwiches.

That life is over. Brown, who lives in south Minneapolis, took early retirement in 2006. His pension pays most of his bills, but he wants to work — yet his prospects for a regular job are dim.

He doesn’t have a high school or college degree, and he’s 56 years old. Jobs are out there, but he doesn’t see the point in working part-time for less than $10 an hour.

He has settled into taking odd jobs such as collecting scrap metal, working as a bricklayer’s assistant and clearing snow from driveways and sidewalks, and is toying with the idea of a one-man stump-grinding operation.

He doesn’t know how long he’ll keep working side jobs, but he doesn’t see an end to it.

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