Underemployment: A no-win struggle for older workers


Last Thursday, Over 50 and Out of Work testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension committee hearing Stories from the Kitchen Table:  How Middle Class Families are Struggling to Make Ends Meet.  Unfortunately, we were only asked one question, because we had so much more information on unemployment and underemployment that we were prepared to contribute to the hearing.

Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse asked what people do when their unemployment benefits run out.  In particular, he inquired about one of our R.I. interviewees, George Dys.  We responded that George is now scraping by on part-time jobs and continuing to deplete his dwindling savings.  George’s underemployed status is common, both for our interviewees and nationwide.

In May, the national unemployment rate was 9.1 percent, but the underemployment rate was 15.8 percent.  Of course, underemployment is tricky to measure, so the actual rate may be much higher.

At the present time, about 40 of our 100 interviewees are severely underemployed.  Their unemployment benefits have expired, and they are now cobbling together a living from one or more part-time jobs.  They continue to deplete any remaining savings they may have, including tapping into retirement funds; they sell their assets such as cars, furniture or collectibles, and they rely on family and friends to help them out when they are in dire need.  Several of our interviewees have also been forced to use food banks for the first time in their lives.

Recently, the New York Times addressed the topic of underemployment in Job Jugglers, on the Tightrope, but the story featured only younger workers, four 20-somethings.  Underemployment is even more challenging and frightening for older workers because they usually have higher living expenses, including mortgage payments, and families to support as well.

Elizabeth Zima, 57, of Calistoga, Calif., a former writer and editor on healthcare issues, now works part-time at three wineries.  She earns 50 percent of her former salary, no longer has health insurance, owes outstanding medical bills and cannot afford to pay her taxes.

Before the Great Recession, Bill Davis, 59, of Myrtle Beach, S.C., earned a six-figure income as an executive recruiter in the IT industry.   Now, he drives a cab at night. Demand for taxi service during the tourist season in Myrtle Beach allows him to make a meager living, but once the weather cools, his customers depart.  Fortunately, he is a veteran, so he has access to medical care, but he cannot afford to pay for his son to go to college.

Joel Nitzberg, 57, of Somerville, Mass., lost his job when the community education department he headed was eliminated to slash costs at a local college.  Joel found full-time work as a consultant, but his position does not offer benefits and ends on July 30.  When he and his wife were both out of work last summer, they experienced the terrifying feeling of living without the safety net of health insurance.  Happily, his wife was able to find a new full-time job in her field that provides health care coverage for the couple once again.

The Times story emphasized the new skills that the younger workers are gaining in their part-time jobs — multitasking, hyper-organization and enhanced knowledge of technology.

For our older interviewees, the underemployment they are enduring does not seem to be building their knowledge or skills.  Their part-time jobs do not help them regain their financial footing or build up their savings and financial security for their later years.

They struggle on, because as they say, what else can we do?

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Comments

qasim said:

hi i am qasim i am not out of job but not getting growth chances my advice is self employment is also a kind of employment all guys who posted there comments above seems very experience so why not to start a small business /consultancy/or minicab driving no work is bad so one should consider diversification as carrer growth option as well paerto 5 models can be applied to any person for career decision making good luck

"Ron" said:

At age 52 trying to find work is grueling. I have over 30 years of experience with about 11 of it served as a top public school official and non-profit executive. I left the school business and took a nice non-profit exec position as a VP under a great CEO that I knew. When he moved to a bigger job he recommended me to the board as his replacement. Alas, the board vice chair had a close friend that she regularly had tea with. The same candidate also had a best friend who happened to be conducting the search for the new CEO. They kicked several others and me to the curb, waived the job requirements and hired their buddy. It didn't take us long to figure out that, aside from being unqualified, the new CEO was also mentally unstable. I lasted another year and four months before I was let go. The company is now in the toilet and the board still doesn't get it ("Duhrrr!"). Now it's tough to convince companies to take a chance on me when they can hire a 35 year old exec for half the pay. Ditto what others have said about the idiocy of HR departments. It's nothing to see 20-25 page applications - almost like they are trying to weed out the best candidates (only the most desperate of us will submit to this nonsense). I recently went through a 6 month process that ended in me being told I was the finalist for the job. I lost another job when they found out and then the company said they had decided not to hire anyone. It's almost like the company was spending tons of money and time just to damage me. I suspect extreme ineptitude is the real reason. I don't think they will survive in business much longer.

Reuben said:

I am a 56 also and have been out of work since Dec2011, ran out of UI last year and look EVERY Day for the last 2.3 years. I am a Biotechnician and I am so qualified for so many posted jobs in my field but no one will even call back and the ones that do are heavy accented and misunderstand my converstation. I have worked all my life since I was a preteen. Never ever have I been out of work in any fashion for this long. What are my options?

MImi said:

Hi, I'm 56 and after 30 years running a business., I have to close. Now unemployed I am lost. I served my customers and employees for 30 years. I do thank the government for unemployment but I am so depressed I pray I snap out of it.

Liz said:

I'm 57, former Navy officer in IT project management. I can't get a job - interviewers faces actually change when they see me, and I'm told I look young for my age. I'm starting to wonder how I'm going to fit my cats and myself in my old car when I can no longer pay the mortgage. I've forgotten what it feels like to have the security of health insurance. I get the feeling that employers really don't want to hire, they just don't want to admit they don't want to hire. It's confusing.

h007sr said:

to the respiratory therapist,I thought someone had posted my story but I live in Ky.My nerves are shot too after 30 years. The trouble is I can't make minimum wage pay my bills. My unemployment has run out and I have less than a couple thousand dollars to my name. I'm 54 and really scared.Also, a misdemeanor charge from a ugly divorce is contributing to making my job search very difficult. I want to work.sr

mpostma said:

I worked respiratory therapy for 20 yrs.wasnt really whaI should have done.. kept it up because of money..nerves got bad..moved back to ohio at 50 yo ! I quit my job and have been working at Walmart ever since...we need to unite and fight for what's ours..this world is crazy ..just crazy and cold..but..I've been working like this for 7 yrs now..you just do what you have to do..but we need each other to talk to..we really do..

rj said:

I am in the same boat. I taught school for 24 years, then we got a new principal who started firing all the female teachers over 45. Our entire department was let go, and we were all replaced by young black women. He was an unmarried black male, so that tells you something right there. At age 59, I cannot find a new job. I took partial retirement just to keep my insurance, but the money I get in retirement goes directly to pay the insurance, so there I am in a very bad situation right now. I didn't have enough years to get full retirement, and I had to cash out my savings just to get partial retirement so I could keep my insurance. I am a cancer survivor, so the thought of not having insurance scared me. I have no family, and I am at the point of despair. Not only have I worked my entire adult life, but I also felt that I was contributing to society. I loved my students, my work, and having no family of my own, it kept me alive and looking forward to each day. I am too old to start over.

paul said:

I am just turning 51 in May and have been unemployed since August of 2012. My position (graphic design) was eliminated by a company who sends jobs to India so their shareholders can make more money. I have done contract work the first year that helped me survive along with unemployment benefits. I had to sell my house and some belongings and now live in a 500 Sq Ft. apt. Unemployment ran out and I have reverted to doing odd jobs and handyman work to help keep whatever funds I still have remaining in the bank. After making 80K/yr, I have the bills that reflect that salary and the only thing left to help me is bankruptcy. I live in Phoenix, AZ where I am told age discrimination is the norm (and finding out the hard way). I have applied for over 2000 jobs and have had maybe 20 interviews but still can't seem to get hired. "you are not a good fit" is a popular excuse and I have a nice collection of denial letters that look like they were copied from the same source. Most companies don't even email you to let you know you were not selected after an interview. I am fortunate I have skills that enable me to make some money on the side but the uncertainty of whether my health will run out or the work runs out makes life very stressful. I've been waiting on healthcare since October. My funds are dwindling and the prospect of taking my 401K is 6 months away. I am at poverty level now, forced to get assistance for the first time in my life. I have received awards from past employers and was the top of my field. How is that NOT good enough to get hired? Not sure if there is any better place to go to to get work. I still apply every day. I keep hoping and pushing but I am getting beyond frustrated over the silly, stupid questions and the just plain stupid mentality of the Human Resource people. They must all have read the same stupid hiring practices book. It is like an episode out of the Twilight Zone. We are losing what is most important about our country to greedy corporations and fools who would sell their soul for PROFIT. I hope they all get downsized eventually and find out what it is really like on our end. The government should tax every company that sends jobs overseas to save money so it isn't worth it. I agree with global trading etc., but you need to take care of your citizens first. Complacency is our worst enemy. Get off your butts and do something to change our government. Get the lazy do nothing rich congress out of Washington. they are not doing anything in our best interest. It is all about lining their pockets and staying in congress. Lets stop consuming and start making stuff again.

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