Crisis in jobs for prime-age workers in the US: Not old, but ‘too old’

The loss of midlife jobs is not just an artifact of the endless recession, but a long-term fact of the American economy.

While unemployment since 2008 has hit people of all ages hard (and those between 16 and 19 the hardest), people over 45 who lose their jobs are disproportionately victimised in many other ways [AP]

With economists celebrating the American economy in contrast to the European, it is easy to overlook the long-term intractable jobs crisis for prime-age workers in the United States.  

Men and women older than 55 have the highest jobless rates since the Great Depression. If you lose a job at midlife, you will be unemployed way longer than a younger person -months longer than your own adult child, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

The average job search for a young woman aged between 25 and 34 was 36 weeks – around 9  months – in 2011, while that of a woman between 45 and 54 was longer by two and a half months.   

These numbers have been getting worse for people between 45 and 54 since 2000, when only16 percent were unemployed for over 6 months; in 2011 it was half. The average duration of unemployment rises every decade over the working life-course. Not old, but “too old”. 

What of women? Even women with a bachelor’s degree, if aged between 55 and 74, have suffered high rates of permanent unemployment or downward mobility during the “recovery”. Of men aged between 55 and 61, only 7 percent are underemployed. For women in the same age group, Owl reports, the percentage is almost three times higher.   

People of colour, disproportionately harmed, lose their chance to accumulate wealth. “Whites experience more rapid rates of wealth accumulation than their minority counterparts during middle and later life, resulting in accelerating wealth disparities with age” and fewer resources for old age.  

The loss of midlife jobs

While unemployment since 2008 has hit people of all ages hard (and those between 16 and 19 the hardest), people over 45 who lose their jobs are disproportionately victimised in other ways. Once you have been out of work, some employers will not look at your resume or offer you an interview. If you are under 40, you have a 40 percent higher likelihood of being interviewed.  

Midlife people who do eventually find jobs typically lose status, pay and benefits – they become “underemployed”. 

In 2009, long-term Hyatt Hotel workers in Boston were asked to train their cheaper successors and then were fired. Most of the 99 were immigrants, many Latinas, some with 20 to 24 years tenure. Now, years later, only some have found equal employment, many are working fewer hours and for lower pay – according to their union rep, Lisa Clauson of Local 26.  

Underemployment destroys midlife people higher up the class ladder too. A study from Rutgers estimates that of the approximately 10 million workers downsized since 2008, 28 percent were between the ages of 45 and 59. 

By the end of 2011, only 22 percent of them had recovered fully – that is, that they had found new, well-paying jobs and regained their previous standard of living. The other 78 percent? Not old, but “too old”.       

Why is this happening? Some part is discrimination. Let us call it by its right name, not ageism but middle ageism. In one typical discrimination suit that went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an employer said to his underlings, “We need young blood”. 

 Jobs report sees reduction in US unemployment

The assumption is we midlifers are not tech-savvy, or hungry enough, or as quick to learn. If we misplace our car keys, employers may expect us to declare with a grin, “Old-timer’s disease”. If employers don’t dump midlifers, they often want to pay us less – rehire us as part-timers or adjuncts, for example.   

Over 40, in the US you are supposed to be protected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Do not hope for much if you sue for age. 

The percentage of complaints based on age has been rising, from under 20 percent in 1997 to 25 percent in 2008 – one in four. (The percentage of all complaints based on race and gender has held steady in this century.) 

Women sue 10 years younger than men, in their mid-40s. Plaintiffs rarely win – Owl says only 1 percent do.   

What do we lose by ignoring middle-ageism? The truth about the economy. Many jobs are permanently gone. 

Andrew Sum, professor of economics at Northeastern University, estimates that in 2012 there are six people looking for a full-time job for every one opening. What will people who have been out of work for over two years do? It may be 10 or 15 years before they can get on the Social Security they have earned. 

Unemployment and suicide rates

According to researchers, suicide rates rise as unemployment rates stagnate. Family dysfunction and heart attacks rise. The group most likely to file for bankruptcy today is married couples with kids, according to Jacob Hacker, the author of The Great Risk Shift.  

People are being cut out of the employment picture when they are in their prime in terms of skills and experience. As the “Boomers”, so-called, seek work are forced to drop out of the workforce, they lose human capital; they can be dismissed as future unproductive and expensive seniors.    

The loss of midlife jobs is not just an artifact of the endless recession. It is a long-term fact of the American economy. Eliminating midlife workers has become a tacit business practice and a disastrous socio-economic trend extending over decades. 

As the Boomers matured, they increasingly slammed into offshoring, downsizing, weakened unions, loss of jobs in manufacturing and later in white-collar work, layoffs, “early” retirement, and pension defaults instituted by globalising and privatising capitalism.           

Europeans know middle ageism too. In Spain, a cabbie told me bitterly, you can’t get work under 30 or over 40. But many countries have – or had – better safety nets than the US. Here, the right-wing punitively even wants to cut long-term unemployment benefits. 

There are people, to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson – the 19th-century philosopher – who “would not so much as part from their ice cream to save others from poverty and humiliation”. 

Even the 1 percent, who profit from the “race to the bottom” in wages and benefits, should regret this waste of human resources, the emotional and medical costs to individuals and their families, and the revenues lost from inability to pay taxes. 

Before any society can move forward toward solutions, it must comprehend the historic human and philosophical implications of this degradation of the midlife. We are losing the meaning of the life course: the rise in respect as we age, the perks of getting older, the hope of a better life to come. These trends should also appall young people everywhere, because if they cannot be stopped this impoverishment is their future too.

Dr Margaret Morganroth Gullette is the author of prize-winning books – Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America, Aged by Culture and Declining to Decline. She is a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University.