Holding several part-time jobs, living with friends, making do without employer-provided benefits and never expecting to achieve your parents’ standard of living: it’s all become routine for today’s youngest entrants into the job market.
But in a semi-recessionary, post-union, without-a-safety-net era, workers twice their age are also getting used to the getting-by lifestyle. Unemployment is high. Worse, workers over 50 are demonstrating levels of long-term unemployment — and of simply dropping out of the job market — that have not been seen since the beginning of such record keeping in America in the 1940s.
For older Jewish workers, job loss can be particularly painful. Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, a licensed clinical social worker, has led a support group for unemployed older workers in New York City for more than four years. “A major theme in this work has to do with shame and stigma,” Weintraub said. Adding to the stress and strain of unemployment is “the competitiveness in the Jewish community — the fact that you’re almost without an identity without a job,” he said.
Weintraub’s free groups are part of the Connect to Care program created by UJA-Federation of New York in 2009 as a response to the recession. Catering to mature workers, Connect to Care offers everything from workshops on networking and computer skills to assistance with budgeting and legal matters. The effort says it has helped 69,000 people through 2012, but hasn’t tried to expand into other regions, said Susan Rosenthal, a Connect to Care program director at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services. “Each area of the country is responding in its own way,” she said.
In 2000, the unemployment rate for workers 55 and up was just 2.5%. In March of this year, the rate for that group was 5.5%, still lower than the overall U.S unemployment rate of 7.6%. Yet the numbers don’t accurately reflect the fraction of older workers who are out of work and looking for jobs, because some discontinue their search for work and drop from the unemployment rolls, often out of sheer discouragement.
To economist Andrew M. Sum, director of Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies, these statistics indicate a broad need for action. “Older workers are more likely to be unemployed today than 12 years ago. And when they lose their jobs, they are more likely to stay unemployed,” he said.
For older workers, the mean duration of unemployment is close to 50 weeks — nearly a full year and the longest period for any age group. “We’ve never seen anything like that,” Sum said. “Once they get beyond nine or 10 months, people will often end their spell of unemployment by saying, ‘That’s it, I give up.’”
Often, when unemployed older workers find new employment, it’s at a lower level and for lower pay and benefits.
Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a scholar at Brandeis University and author of “Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America,” blames a destructive combination of age discrimination and “scarcity capitalism” for making older workers less marketable, robbing them of what should be the benefits of experience. She argues that the very concept of seniority — that compensation and clout should increase, not decrease, with age — has been undermined.
“You have high responsibilities and low control,” Gullette said. “That is a sociological formula for stress and illness.”
Rabbi Weintraub witnesses the toll of joblessness firsthand. His support group, called “From Strength to Strength,” meets twice a month in Manhattan and draws up to a dozen people each time, from secular to Orthodox. Both genders are represented, but the group is mostly women. His group counters society’s view of workers as dispensable with Judaism’s belief in the collective. He works with relevant Jewish stories and teachings, connecting to the weekly Torah portion and concepts like maintaining hope or asking for help. Weintraub has seen people with too much free time benefit from stepping into new roles in their synagogues.
Plus, participants are starting to get leads for jobs. “For the first two years, it was devastating. Many people were unable to get interviews,” Weintraub said. “It’s just starting to turn around now.”
Karen Loew is a journalist in New York City and former associate editor of the Forward.