A Dream Deferred for Older Americans Struggling to Find Work

Megan Cottrell

For older Americans laid off during the recession, job prospects are bleak.

Graduate from college. Get married. Buy a house. Have kids. Put in a few decades of hard work, and then it’s time to retire by 65. That’s the American Dream, right?

But for many older Americans who were set to retire when the recession hit, that dream came up short when they suddenly lost their jobs. Though older workers were the least likely to become unemployed during the economic downturn, for those who did, recovery has been incredibly difficult. More and more older Americans are past retirement age, but still looking for work. Between 2007 and 2011, the number of unemployed Americans age 65 to 74 more than doubled, according to data from the American Community Survey. 

Doug Deaton was forced to take social security in 2009 at age 62, after identity theft and job loss left him financially strapped. He worked his entire adult life, as a teacher, in public relations, as an actor and even as a sales manager for Amtrak. Taking early social security means his payments were reduced by almost a third — from around $1,150 to $728 a month. Not enough to live on, says Deaton, who says he owes quite a bit of back rent to his landlord.

I’m still in the hole,” he said. Every month is a struggle to pull enough together.”

I first met Deaton three years ago, when I was interviewing 99ers” — people who had maxed out their 99 weeks of emergency unemployment benefits and were still looking for a job. Of the three folks I’ve been able to follow-up with so far, Deaton has faired the worst.

Last year, he was finally able to get a surgery he’d been putting off for 10 years because he became eligible for Medicaid. But he caught an antibiotic-resistant superbug at a local hospital, which delayed his recovery by months. Still, he’s been sending out resumes by the dozen for any job he can find — office work, service jobs, sales. He even applied to be a barista, but was told he was too old and wouldn’t be able to keep up.

I can’t begin to tell you how many applications and resumes I have sent out. Every day I’m up, looking online for something. I never even hear from anybody,” said Deaton. It used to be you could put on a suit and walk into an office, but you can’t do that anymore.”

Deaton’s not alone in looking for work. Between 1993 and 2011, the number of male workers aged 65 to 69 actively involved in the labor force — working or looking for work — jumped 12 percentage points. For females in the same age group, the number jumped by 11 percentage points. But according to Richard Johnson, a senior research fellow at the Urban Institute, the likelihood of them finding a job isn’t good.

It’s very hard to find job if you’re over 55. It just gets harder and harder the older you get. For people who are in their sixties, it takes them twice as long to find a job as people in their forties,” said Johnson.

According to Johnson’s research, older Americans were less likely to lose their jobs during the recession than workers aged 25 to 34. But when it comes to finding a new job, the opposite is true: About half of unemployed workers aged 62 and older were still out of work 16 months after becoming unemployed, compared with a fifth of those aged 25 to 34.

That’s what defines this recession — this army of the long-term unemployed,” said Johnson. The pain is really concentrated among a really small segment of the population.”

Even those who do manage to find work still may not enjoy financial security, says Johnson.

For those older workers who do find a new job, they end up working for much less than they were making beforehand,” said Johnson.

Johnson says much of the reluctance to hire older workers comes from a perception that they’ll likely leave their job sooner, meaning their employers are less able to recoup hiring and training costs. But there’s also blatant age discrimination, stemming from a belief that older workers are unable or unwilling to keep up with technology.

Deaton says that might be true of some people his age, but not him. He’s done his best to keep up with technology and learn new skills.

I spend a lot of time sitting on this computer. You learn how to do things and you learn how to adapt,” said Deaton. I can keep up.”

Deaton says his new skills, combined with years of hard work and experience, would make him a great employee. He recently attended a meeting of former colleagues, bigwigs in the railroad industry, to talk about the high-speed rail corridor between Chicago and Detroit.

In all my years of working for Amtrak, I helped lay the groundwork for this to happen,” said Deaton. I just wish I could be a part of it now.”

Part of the problem, says Deaton, is the perception that older people don’t want to work — that everyone’s ready to kick back on their La-Z-Boy watching Wheel of Fortune” in their Boca Raton condo. But Deaton says it’s not just about money — he still feels he has something to contribute. He remembers a sign that used to hang in his grandfather’s law office.

It read, It’s what you learn after you think you know it all that really counts,’” he said. I’ve worked so hard over my life to keep learning new skills. I’ve finally gotten to the point where I’m worth a damn, but no one else thinks so.”

Megan Cottrell is an award-winning journalist based in Chicago. She has written for The Chicago Reporter, DNAinfo Chicago, The Chicago Reader, AOL and Change​.org, among other publications.
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