Business

Great Recession has new wrinkles for older workers

When potential employers ask Tracy Blakeley about her personal life, she assumes they're not making idle chit chat.

They're trying to figure out how old she is.

"They ask if I have kids or grandkids," Blakeley, 53, said. "They won't ask you your birth date, but they'll ask when you graduated from high school."

Blakeley has a rock-solid work ethic, good computer skills and an upbeat personality. What she doesn't have is a permanent job, despite trying her hardest to find one.

It's a common story for people in their 50s, 60s and even 70s. Nearly 2 million people ages 55 and older are looking for a job these days, twice as many as before the Great Recession.

The chronically sluggish U.S. economy has taken a toll on workers of all ages, but it has weighed particularly heavily on the baby boom generation.

The unemployment rate for older workers is below that of the general population. It's 5.4% for those ages 55 and older, versus 7.3% for the entire labor force, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But boomers who suffer layoffs endure far longer bouts of unemployment than the rest of the labor force. And when they do land new positions, boomers typically have to take substantially larger pay cuts than their younger brethren.

"Older workers who have been able to hang onto their jobs have done pretty well," said Sara Rix, senior strategic policy advisor with the AARP Public Policy Institute. "It's once they lose their jobs that they're just not getting new ones."

In a sign of the need for help among older workers, the AARP held a job skills conference last weekend in Long Beach. The organization expected 600 attendees. Nearly 1,000 people showed up. (Online resources are available at aarp.org/work/ and workreimagined.aarp.org.)

Beyond the financial implications, the long job hunts exact an emotional price.

"Sitting at home trying to figure out what you're going to do next is very taxing on your brain," said Darryl Whetstone, a 55-year-old Norwalk man who was laid off 17 months ago. "There are a lot of people over the age of 50 that can really be of use and they're not utilized."

Their plight is important in part because a growing number of people fall into that age group. And given the nation's poor rate of retirement savings, more people are searching for jobs than just a few years ago.

Four in 10 job seekers ages 50 and older say they need the money, according to a survey last month by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Older workers long have battled negative perceptions, such as that they're not as productive as younger colleagues or that their healthcare costs are higher . They're at an added disadvantage in today's rapidly shifting digital world, some experts say.

Employers fear they lack skills in crucial areas such as social media. And older workers often aren't adept at modern-day job-search techniques, such as using LinkedIn or video interviews.

"It's extremely difficult for those who lose a job," said Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. "Employers would rather not hire older workers. They have in their heads certain assumptions about them, which may or may not be correct."

In historical terms, the challenges for this age group are a fairly new phenomenon.

Older workers fared reasonably well in past economic downturns, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

The jobless rate for people 55 and older peaked at 5% in the early-1990s recession. It topped out at 4.3% in the downturn in the early 2000s. By contrast, the rate hit a record high 7.4% in August 2010.

Older job seekers face significant head winds.

It takes the average older worker 55 weeks to find a job, compared with 35 weeks for those ages 25 to 34, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. And workers aged 55-64 take an average 18% pay cut in a new job, compared with 6.2% for people ages 35 to 44, according to the data.

It's hard to prove, but many boomers — even those with jobs — say they've been discriminated against.

One in five people ages 50 or older report suffering age discrimination, including being passed over for promotions or training to update their skills, the AP-NORC survey found.

Older workers say they emphasize to employers the benefits of their maturity and experience. Beyond quantifiable skills, that includes nuances such as knowing how to work in a team or get along with moody co-workers.

"I'm very happy to pass my knowledge on to a 35-year-old who wants to attain [a promotion], not take the position away from him," said Roy Satz, a 63-year-old financial executive.

Still, older workers worry that their age is being held against them.

Blakeley was laid off in early 2009 from her job as a recruiter at an employment agency.

She thought she would quickly find another job, as she always had in the past. The Gardena woman went to school to learn massage therapy and ran her own business for a while but closed it last year.

Since then, she has strung together a series of temporary jobs, including a current stint as a home-healthcare aide, but hasn't landed a permanent position.

Like many older workers, Blakeley can't tell whether potential employers are holding her age against her. But sometimes she suspects they are.

Earlier this year, an employment agency called her for an administrative position. Blakeley had a half-hour phone chat with a recruiter at the agency, which led her to believe that she was a serious candidate.

The recruiter asked Blakeley to come in a few days later to meet her manager and interview with the company that was hiring.

But the tone changed when she got to the temp office and, Blakeley believes, the recruiter realized Blakeley was older than expected.

"I walked into her office and it was a total different persona," Blakeley said. "I was supposed to meet the manager, and the manager all of a sudden wasn't available. I was supposed to go out on an interview, and all of a sudden the interview wasn't going to happen."

Despite that, Blakeley remains optimistic.

"I believe there are still great options out there for me," she said. "I just have to find the right one."

walter.hamilton@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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