Robbed of Savings, Older Workers Hit with New Problems

Michelle Chen

A Wal-Mart greeter speaks with a shopper leaving a Wal-Mart Supercenter store in Ohio.

To young financial analysts on Wall Street, the markets may be brightening, but to their great aunts and uncles on Main Street, the economic picture never looked so gray.

Even before the recession, older workers struggled against dwindling retirement funds and heavy healthcare costs. A new study by the training and advocacy organization Experience Works shows that many of these workers are unwelcome in a labor market that values youth over the wisdom of elders.

The group’s survey of about 2,000 older, low-income job-seekers found that about half of respondents have spent over a year searching for work. And about half wanted to stay working just to keep a roof over their heads.

Reflecting the double-blow of the healthcare crisis and financial meltdown, about 20 percent cited health benefits as a major reason to keep working, and nine percent said the stock market had robbed them of retirement savings.

You could read the graying workforce as a sign that people are staying active later in life. But at some point, work becomes more of a burden than a lifestyle choice.

Certainly, the roughly two million older workers who turned up in the recent unemployment figures probably never expected to be competing for scarce jobs against fresh college grads or sprightlier single workers. Elder workers in many cases must reconfigure their lives around the generational and socioeconomic gaps of an increasingly diverse, yet increasingly unequal, workforce.

An analysis by the Center for American Progress found an unprecedented 134-percent increase in the number of workers over the age of 55 who are looking for work since December 2007.” Additionally, those who are unemployed are staying unemployed much longer.”

As we reported last month, a survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that the recession has pushed back retirement for some 40 percent of workers aged 62 and older. Among workers aged 65 and older, a slim majority say they’ve kept working just because they want to, nearly one in six said the main reason is that they need the paycheck.” Many remain in the office or on the factory floor in order to hold onto health benefits.

Often, older workers have accumulated a lifetime’s worth of responsibilities but not the wealth to match. More than two thirds of those surveyed by Experience Works said they couldn’t survive just on retirement income. Nearly half said they were sometimes forced to choose between paying rent, purchasing food or purchasing medication.” Many were struggling to care for a spouse or grandchildren.

The Associated Press reports that under a new poverty measure, the poverty rate among Americans aged 65 and older would be about twice as high – around 19 percent, or 6.8 million people.

The financial burdens that come with old age are compounded by competitive disadvantages in the job market, according to Experience Works. A lower education level was seen as a major barrier to finding work, as were employers who think older workers resist change and can’t learn new things.”

To address these patterns, the organization runs community-based training programs to help seniors upgrade their skills and experiences for the current labor market.

Yet aging workers could teach young people a lot about how labor is evolving in this generation. The Center for American Progress found that in terms of overall employment rates, elders in the workforce appear to be holding on to their jobs longer and more effectively than younger workers.”

The economic bust has thrust many boomers into a cruel dilemma: they’ve aged out of the job market, yet the economy refuses to let them grow old gracefully. Disintegrating job security and the wild swings of Wall Street reflect an economy trapped in a perverse adolescence — banking on short-term thrills at the expense of the stability that enabled past generations to build more modest dreams.

That era may be fading fast, but the least we can do now is work toward an economy that respects its elders.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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