What’s the state of 50-plus unemployment?

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Mark Miller

Susan Sipprelle has taken on a thankless task: documenting the pain inflicted by the Great Recession on older workers.

An independent journalist and photographer, last fall Sipprelle launched Over50andOut ofWork.com, a website dedicated to telling the stories of jobless Americans from a wide array of backgrounds through video interviews.

Their stories are supplemented with interviews with some of the country’s top experts on older workers, joblessness and the challenge of job-hunting over age 50.

“I embarked on this project because I saw the devastating impact the recession was having on many of my peers,” Sipprelle said.

In their own words

“These are boomers who had expected to be secure in their careers, but when they found themselves unemployed, the value of their homes and savings had also declined, and they could not find jobs.

“I wanted to use new media tools coupled with old-school journalism to give out-of-work older Americans a chance to tell their own stories and expose the issues they confront as they seek re-employment.

“Their stories are not only about the hardships they are currently facing and the resilience they possess, but also about the past 50 years of seismic social and economic change in the United States,” she added.

“If boomers can get back to work and regroup financially, their individual futures will improve, as will the economy and the long-term outlook for the country.”

Over50andOutofWork.com already has collected more than 60 video interviews with jobless workers all over the country, and has a goal to collect 100. The site also has started a blog series focused on older entrepreneurs.

Less likely fired — or hired

So, storytelling aside, how are older workers actually faring in the recession? Unemployment data paints a mixed picture. Older workers have been less likely to get laid off, but they’re having a much harder time finding new work than are younger jobseekers.

A recent report by the Urban Institute shows that seniority helps protect older workers from job loss — the average jobless rate for workers over 55 in 2010 was 7.7 percent for men, and 6.2 percent for women. That’s considerably lower than the national unemployment rate, which stood at 9.0 percent in January.

Overall, workers age 50 to 61 were 34 percent less likely to lose their jobs during the downturn than younger workers, the Urban Institute researchers found.

But workers in that age group who have lost their jobs in the recession are one-third less likely to find new work than their counterparts age 25 to 34. And workers over age 62 were half as likely to be re-employed.

What’s more, workers who do find new jobs are accepting lower pay. Median hourly wages for displaced men age 50 to 61 who became re-employed from 1996 to 2007 fell 20 percent below the median figures for their former jobs. By contrast, wages fell just 4 percent for men age 25 to 34.

A role for federal government

The findings point to the difficulty of keeping workers on the job longer — an aim of policymakers hoping to reduce pressure on federal spending for entitlement programs such as Social Security.

“We need to get people to work longer so they can help produce the goods and services necessary to promote economic growth and help pay taxes to fund public services,” said Richard Johnson, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and a co-author of the report.

“But that can’t happen unless seniors can find work. We need to devote more money to training and employment services for older workers.

“The federal government has only one small employment program targeted to older people — we need more. We should also consider extending unemployment benefits for older people, since it takes them so long to find work when unemployed.”

[In recent steps to reduce the federal deficit, the House of Representatives passed a bill that cut the older worker employment program by 64 percent and abolished the Senior Corps program, among other cuts affecting seniors.]

And age discrimination claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have spiked in recent years.

“Employers are clearly reluctant to hire older workers,” said Johnson. “Many are concerned that older workers are more expensive than younger ones; that they lack up-to-date skills; that they won’t be around long enough to justify the cost of hiring and training them.

“These concerns are mostly unfounded, but they’re widespread. If that’s not outright age discrimination, it certainly comes close.”

Mark Miller is the author of The Hard Times Guide to Retirement Security: Practical Strategies for Money, Work and Living (John Wiley & Sons/Bloomberg Press, 2010). Subscribe to Mark’s free weekly eNewsletter at http://retirementrevised.com/enews. Contact: mark@retirementrevised.com.

© 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.