Job Loss at 55: Often a Long Road Back

A study quantifies how much job loss costs older workers

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As a group, retirees and older workers are not in the financial straits that we often assume. The vast majority of retirees say they are comfortable; the unemployment rate for those over 55 is lower than that of the general population, and it’s coming down.

Still, the Great Recession has taken a toll on the older population, dooming many to a reduced living standard for the rest of their lives, according to recent research from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

In the early part of the downturn workers past the age of 55 suffered an unusually high rate of job loss. The unemployment rate for this group spiked to 7.2%. That has abated and the figure now stands at 5.3%, vs. an overall unemployment rate of 7.6%. But the initial surge of job loss has broad implications. Older workers who suffer a layoff have a more difficult time returning to work for equal or more pay, research shows.

Ten years after losing a job, older displaced workers earn 14% to 19% less than they did before the job loss, according to the retirement center’s research. They own 22% to 30% fewer assets and are significantly more likely to experience subsequent layoffs. As Maria Heidkamp, a senior project manager at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, notes in her blog:

I routinely meet older job seekers who have made transitions to new jobs, such as the supermarket checkout clerk who used to do marketing for a big pharmaceutical company; the airport-van driver who used to work as a newspaper editor; the other airport-van driver who used to work for Hewlett-Packard; the cable repairman who used to be in finance.

This downward mobility is part of the “de-skilling” of the American labor force, according a paper from three Canadian economists. High-skilled labor moves down the occupational ladder, pushing unskilled labor down even further — or off the ladder altogether.

One issue seems to be employer misperception as it relates to older workers and their requirements. Many employers assume older laid-off workers won’t return for anything less than the job they once had, and that these workers will have not kept up with today’s needed skills.

Yet as Heidkamp observes, older workers are more than ready to work for less if that’s what it takes to get re-employed. And in a rapidly evolving workplace, there is no guarantee that young workers are keeping up any better. “Even employed workers need to be always thinking about their next job and how to navigate their own career and professional development,” she writes. But at least they have time to figure it out.