February jobs report brings some cheer for older workers

Older workers, the group hit hardest by the recession and slow recovery, landed the bulk of new jobs created by the improving economy, the February jobs report showed.

Rick Bowmer/AP
Jobseekers wait in line at the Career Expo job fair Wednesday in Portland, Ore. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the bulk of new jobs added to the US economy over the past three months has gone to workers 55 and older.

The improving job market – with the economy adding 227,000 jobs in February – is even starting to benefit one group that has suffered the most: the older worker.

Over the past three months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the bulk of the new jobs has gone to workers 55 years or older. In fact, since the beginning of December, older workers have added 923,000 jobs compared to a loss of 300,000 jobs for much younger workers.

According to economists, the surge in hiring of older workers is related to the difficulty many older workers are having in making ends meet. Retirees are either rejoining the work force or postponing their retirement altogether. As a result they are taking jobs that younger Americans would normally have.

“They are pushing out the younger worker,” says Sung Won Sohn, an economist at California State University, Channel Islands. “They are bagging groceries, working at gas stations.”

In February, for example, some 277,000 older workers got jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data. This followed an increase of 558,000 in January.

It’s not surprising that older workers are desperate. According to an analysis released on Friday by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), since the start of the Great Recession, the number of long-term unemployed older workers more than quintupled to 1.8 million in 2011.

In addition, NELP researchers found that compared with other age groups, once older workers became unemployed, they were most likely to become long-term unemployed. In fact, forty percent of older workers who were unemployed during 2011 were jobless at least a year, the highest rate among all age groups.

There are economic and political implications for the problems older workers have had with work.

On the political front, President Obama has not done well with older people, says Jeff Jones, managing editor of the Gallup Poll in Princeton, N.J.

“Among people 50 and older, his approval rating has been in the low 40s,” says Mr. Jones. “Certainly as a group he will have to do better with them and in fact if he does better among this group, he will be a shoe-in for reelection.”

The economic concerns are more long-term. Many of the older workers who are out of work, own their own homes and are trying to avoid foreclosure. In addition, many are draining their lifesavings, including their retirement accounts, in order to buy groceries and pay their bills.

“It has been several generations since we were concerned about poverty among the nation’s elderly,” says Christine Owens, executive director of NELP, which advocates for the unemployed in Washington. “But, because of what’s happened the last several years – sustained long-term unemployment and declining housing values – we face the possibility of seeing an increase in economic hardship among older workers in fifteen or twenty years.”

Although many more older workers are getting jobs, Ms. Owens cautions that there is no indication the job surge is helping the long-term unemployed worker. “This could be people who have been out of work for shorter periods of time,” she says. “And, we don’t know what kind of jobs they are going back to – I suspect they may be going into jobs that pay less.”

In fact, despite the improved numbers over the past few months, employment specialists say the older worker still faces an uphill climb. Chicago-based outplacement specialist John Challenger of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, one of the major obstacles older workers face when looking for work is discrimination.

“It has dissipated but there are still stereotypes of older workers that affect hiring managers’ decisions,” says Mr. Challenger in an interview. “For example, ideas that they have less energy, creativity, or flexibility or are more expensive, those sorts of things,” he says.

Another Chicago jobs expert, Phil Rosenberg of reCareered.com, says he sees signs of discrimination in terms of older workers’ difficulties in getting interviews. Mr. Rosenberg regularly polls people he is working with on the response rate to their resumes.

“The majority of people get a response rate of 1.5 percent to 2 percent,” he says. “But, people who are 50 plus get less than 1 percent, about half.”

Rosenberg thinks one of the key reasons is that hiring managers prefer to hire someone they can support and mentor. “It makes them look more valuable to their organization,” he explains. “And, they are much more uncomfortable with someone who is a generation older than them.”

Bonnie Ornitz, a 50-plus worker who has been unemployed for more than 8 months, thinks her difficulty in finding a job might be attributed to several factors, including her age. “I believe it is held against me although I don’t have any actual proof,” says Ms. Ornitz, who works out at a gym and has lots of energy.

Another factor, she thinks, is that she made a “decent” salary when she was working. She says that means if she were to take a job for considerably less money, she would leave if something else were to materialize. “They know if I get in and something in my salary range opens up, I am out,” she says.

Ornitz, who is an IT professional, says the long period of unemployment is very frustrating.

“I’ve been working for 30 years and this has never happened before,” she says, adding that she is still steadily sending in job applications from her home in southern California. “It’s really getting offensive.”

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