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Behind the Spike in Seniors' Unemployment

Kimberly Palmer

In today's story on why older Americans are so happy at work, we focus on the results of a new Charles Schwab study that suggests about one-third of 60-something workers are so content at their jobs that they don't want to retire. In fact, three in four respondents between the ages of 50 and 69 said they are "sticking with their jobs because they want to," and not because they have to for financial reasons. That runs counter to the stereotype of older workers stuck in miserable jobs because they can't afford to retire.

But there's another category of 60-somethings who aren't so happy, and that is unemployed older workers. A new report from the Government Accountability Office zeroes in on the challenges of this group, and finds that many older Americans without jobs face financial instability. And it's often difficult for them to find jobs, even if they want them. Health problems, skill mismatches, and a tough labor market all contribute to the struggles of this group.

While unemployment rates have risen for all age groups, the GAO reports that for Americans age 55 and older, bouts of unemployment can last longer than for other age groups. In December 2007, the unemployment rate for older workers was 3.1 percent; in April 2012 it was 6 percent. Meanwhile, the median length of unemployment for older workers was 35 weeks in 2011, compared to 10 weeks before the recession. One in three unemployed older workers has been unemployed for over a year.

Such long periods of unemployment make it hard to stay financially solvent; many older workers aren't ready to retire, and don't have the retirement savings to do so. When they lose their jobs, they plow through their savings, further diminishing their retirement funds. Even if they are lucky enough to eventually return to the workforce, the GAO estimates that seven in 10 face lower earnings in their new jobs.

So what is keeping older workers from landing and keeping their jobs? After all, the Schwab study shows that older Americans still have much to contribute to the workplace. Focus groups led by the GAO suggest that it might come down to bias against older workers. Participants said they thought employers were reluctant to hire older workers, and that was the main obstacle in their path to finding new jobs. While law prohibits age discrimination, many older workers said they believed it was happening anyway.

The focus groups revealed that employers also fear the high healthcare costs of older workers, as well as the risk that older workers will be overqualified for positions and therefore will not do a good job. Some older workers might also lack technical skills required by computer-heavy jobs, or at least their potential employers might worry that they are not proficient on a PC.

As for the financial ramifications of such extended periods of unemployment, the GAO finds that unemployed older workers often face lower Social Security payments (because of fewer years worked) as well as lower retirement savings. (Social Security retirement benefits are based partly on workers' average monthly earnings over 35 years, and if a person works fewer than 35 years, then zeroes are entered and the entire average is brought down.) And if unemployed workers sign up for Social Security benefits early, at age 62, then they receive lower monthly payments until the day they die.

To counter some of these dismal financial ramifications, the GAO suggests considering temporary subsidies to employers who hire older workers who have been unemployed, or to encourage more training for older workers.

Although the GAO didn't mention it, a Don Draper-style image makeover campaign could also help older workers. If stereotypes about older workers' inability to use computers or eagerness to work are getting in the way of their financial solvency, then promoting the message that older workers are savvy, enthusiastic, and ready to work could help convince employers to take them on. Schwab's survey shows that older workers have valuable and relevant skills to share, and that they can be even happier at work than their younger counterparts.

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