A Downwardly Mobile Boomer Survives

The unemployment rate has rocketed to double digits. But older workers’ struggles in the job market are not new.

An Urban Institute study, reported here, estimated that about half of workers over age 50 left a job involuntarily at some point between 1992 and 2016 – a period that included strong economic growth and two recessions. After the workers found new employment, their households were earning just over half of what they earned in their previous jobs, researcher Richard Johnson told PBS’ NewsHour.

The baby boomers being laid off now might relate to Jaye Crist, who was featured in this NewsHour video last February when unemployment was still at record lows. He had been a manager at a national printing company for three decades – until his 2016 layoff. Through sheer determination, he found a full-time job packing and delivering printed materials to customers for a print shop in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. But his income dropped sharply.

“It’s frustrating that, in my mind, somebody who has done the things you were told as a kid you need to do – stay at a job, work, learn, be helpful, get promotions – and then you find yourself, at this point, that your career doesn’t mean [anything],” Crist said in the pre-pandemic video.

“You just do whatever you have to do to keep everything else afloat,” he said.

With the country now in a recession, I checked in with Crist to see how he’s doing. His financial situation deteriorated further after Pennsylvania shut down the economy to contain the virus. He briefly lost his three jobs – at the printing company and two part-time jobs, at a local brewery and a workout gym.

He was relieved when the printer brought him back in April from a three-week furlough after the company received a stimulus loan under the federal Paycheck Protection Program. But business is slow, and Crist worries he might lose the job again. “Knowing that you’re almost 60 years old,” he asked, “now what do you do?”

The gym is also reopening, but it’s unclear how much he can work since he used to be on the night shift and the gym will no longer be open 24 hours a day. He also returned to the brewery to handle takeout orders but it, like many eating establishments, is struggling to make it at a time of social distancing.

Prior to the pandemic, Crist had already gone through many of the financial struggles boomers are facing today. With his wife unable to work, he said he depleted his 401(k) after his 2016 layoff.  He was having difficulty keeping up his mortgage payments and paying part of his daughter’s college loans, and now it’s even harder.

He said he can’t imagine being able to retire. “I’ll be working and paying for stuff until I can’t.”Learn More

Same Disability. Some Have Tougher Jobs

People lifting a heavy box

Workers at construction sites or in warehouses can feel their bodies breaking down over time. This could be the natural aging process, or it could have to do with their overly strenuous jobs.

It’s not easy to tease apart the effects of each. But consider two groups of workers with back and spine stiffness or deformities employed in a variety of occupations. One group has had the back problems since they were children or teenagers, while the other group’s disability began as adults.

Given that they all have a similar disability, it might seem that both groups would also have similar physical demands at work. But that isn’t the case.

A recent study found that the workers who developed back problems as adults were required to lift and carry more weight as part of their jobs. The maximum weight they were required to lift was 26.5 pounds on average. That was a lot more – six pounds more – than the maximum weight handled by the people who already had back problems when they started working.

The significance of workers with late-onset conditions having more taxing jobs is that their jobs “may have caused their health conditions,” the researchers said.

It’s important to add some perspective to this finding, however. A separate analysis in the study comparing workers with and without a disability showed that many people with disabilities have jobs that accommodate them.

But the disparity in working conditions within the disabled population is still a concern. Another example involves people with emotional and cognitive disorders. Ideally, they cope better if they can work at a reasonable pace. But the researchers found that a larger share of workers – three out of four on average – who developed these disorders as adults were in jobs requiring them to work quickly. That compares with just two-thirds of people with early-onset conditions.

We know aging causes physical infirmities. But the physical demands of work also seem to play a role.
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Art saying Now what?

Recession Destabilizes Boomers’ Finances

The COVID-19 recession has changed everything.

This extreme disruption in our lives is always top of mind, which was reflected in our most widely read articles so far this year, based on the blog’s traffic.

Baby boomers, their retirement plans having been deeply affected by the Great Recession, are once again reassessing their finances. One popular article explained that the boomers who were in their early to late 50s during the previous recession lost about 3 percent of their total wealth at the time. This put their retirement planning at a distinct disadvantage compared with earlier generations in their 50s, whose wealth, rather than shrinking, grew 3 percent to 8 percent. The current recession is the second major setback in just over a decade.

Prior to the pandemic, readers liked articles about making careful retirement plans. Post-pandemic, the most popular article was about laid-off boomers desperate for income who may have to start their Social Security prematurely. The retirement benefits can be claimed as early as age 62, but doing so locks in the smallest possible monthly Social Security check – for life.

Even before Millennials were hit by the recession, they were already farther behind older generational groups when they were the same age. One article explained that the typical Millennial had just $12,000 in wealth. They are “the only generation to have fallen further behind” during the pre-pandemic recovery, the Federal Reserve said.

Here are a dozen of this blog’s most popular articles for the first half of 2020. They are grouped into three topics: COVID-19 and Your Finances, Retirement Planning, and Retirement Uncertainties.

COVID-19 and Your Finances:

Social Security Tapped More in Downturn

Lost Wealth Today vs the Great Recession

Boomers Facing Tough Financial DecisionsLearn More

A teacher and student

COVID: The Challenge for Older Workers

In anticipation of rambunctious children returning to the classroom in the fall, older teachers are sounding alarms about how challenging it will be to make the schools safe for themselves, as well as the children and families.

Their fears about going back to work in a pandemic are shared by older workers around the country with chronic conditions, which increase the mortality rate for people who contract COVID-19.

Workers who cannot work remotleyMore than half of U.S. workers who are between ages 55 and 64 are in jobs that can’t be done remotely, a new study estimates. Their flexibility to work at home isn’t much different than younger adults.

But older Americans who are weighing whether to return to work face a dilemma that is of less concern to young, healthy workers.

The older workers must choose between “health risks – returning to work before the virus is under control – or economic risks – delaying work until the environment is safe, which may exhaust their resources,” concluded researchers at the Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog.

Jobs that can’t be performed at home were identified in the study by 14 specific tasks, ranging from interacting with the public and handling machinery to rarely using email and standing or walking for most of the workday.

By linking information about jobs to individuals in a national survey, the researchers reported on the ability to work remotely based on the characteristics of the workers themselves. They found that women, who often gravitate to jobs that give them more flexibility or the ability to work part-time, are more likely to be in jobs they can do at home – think about travel agents (85 percent are women) and freelance writers (67 percent).

The analysis also confirmed something the media have reported anecdotally: working remotely is a perk of being a well-paid professional. About six in 10 workers in the highest earnings bracket can do their jobs at home, compared with just over three out of 10 workers in the lowest two earnings brackets. …Learn More

Art of people at a job interview

Virus Complicates Boomers’ Job Searches

As laid-off baby boomers venture into the job market in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they may sense it will be tough to find a position because, well, they’re too old.

New research indicates this suspicion is spot-on.

Discrimination is notoriously difficult to corroborate in academic studies. But researchers in Belgium, using a well-designed experiment conducted prior to the pandemic, found that company hiring managers working in 30 developed countries, including the United States, were much less likely to ask older job applicants to even come in for an interview.

The reason? They were perceived as having “lower technological skill, flexibility, and trainability levels,” the study concluded.

But there’s a big disconnect between this evidence of discrimination and a different report, based on a 2019 telephone survey, that employers view workers over age 55 as being at least – and sometimes more – productive than their younger colleagues. This survey also found that older workers are perceived more positively if the hiring manager is older. The findings provide some hope that, as the population ages, baby boomers who want to continue their careers may be able to do so.

However, even the authors of this study acknowledge two issues facing boomers. First, even when employers say they have positive perceptions of older workers, this posture “does not necessarily correspond with employer behavior.”

Second, given older workers’ underlying health conditions, COVID-19 is a wild card that could “adversely affect” their job prospects.

In any case, older job hunters will inevitably encounter some recruiters who will hold age against them. To overcome preconceived notions about older workers, the study of discriminatory recruiters provided some practical tips, based on the findings. …Learn More

Woman with mental health problems

Recessions Hit Depressed Workers Hard

Anyone who’s suffered through depression knows it can be difficult to get out of bed, much less find the energy to go to work. Mental illness has been on the rise, and depression and myriad other symptoms get in the way of being a productive employee.

So it’s not surprising that men and women with mental illness are much less likely to be employed than people who have no symptoms. But the problem gets worse in a recession.

In 2008, the first year of the Great Recession, the economy slowed sharply as 2.6 million workers lost their jobs. During that time, people who suffered from mental illness left the labor force at a much faster pace than everyone else, according to a new study from the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

The researchers compared average labor force participation, as reported in the National Health Interview Survey, for three periods. Two periods of consistent economic growth bracketed a period that included the onset of the Great Recession: 1997-1999, 2006-2008, and 2015-2017.

Labor force participation for people with no mental illness dipped less than 1 percent between the late 1990s and the period that included the recession. By 2015-2017, roughly three out of four of them were still in the labor force – only slightly below pre-recession levels.

Contrast this relative stability to large declines in activity for people with mental illness – the more severe the condition, the steeper the drop. Participation fell 17 percent among people with the most severe forms of mental illness between the late 1990s and the period that included the recession. By 2015-2017, only 38 percent of them remained in the labor force – well below pre-recession levels. …Learn More

Recession Slams Millennials – Again

Woman waving to a friend

Several young adults in my life have been derailed by the COVID-19 recession.

A few examples. My daughter-in-law just finished her graduate degree in occupational therapy and sailed through her certification only to be met by a stalled job market. A friend’s daughter, fresh out of nursing school, has already been turned down for one job. My nephew, a late bloomer who had finally snared a job making jewelry for a major retailer, was laid off and is floundering again.

Student loans, the Great Recession, and now a pandemic – Millennials can’t seem to catch a break.

Going into this pandemic, people in their 20s and 30s already had lower wages, more student debt, and less wealth than previous generations at the same age. This recession arrives at a critical time when Millennials were trying to catch up, build careers and strive for financial goals.

For the youngest ones, this is their first recession. But the downturn is the second blow for older Millennials, many of whom had the bad luck of entering the job market in the midst of the Great Recession a decade ago.

Does this double jeopardy put them in danger of becoming “a lost generation”? Millennials’ predicament prompted the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis to ask this question in a new report on their finances.

The COVID-19 recession, the report said, “could upend many of their lives.”

The situation is far from hopeless, of course – they have several decades to make up for this rough patch! There’s no reason they can’t overcome the setbacks with some pluck and determination.

But this will require much more effort to pull off amid the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression. The Federal Reserve estimates more than 5.5 million Millennials have become unemployed this year – African-Americans bore a disproportionate share of the layoffs.

Young adults were over-represented in the food service, hospitality, and leisure industries slammed by state shutdowns to control the pandemic. And as the recession plays out, Millennials, with their shorter tenures in the labor market, will continue to be vulnerable to layoffs.

Don’t forget about Generation Z either. The recession will be a tough period for its oldest members, who are just graduating from college and haven’t built up their resumés. They may be less appealing job candidates when so many experienced people are eager to work and willing to compromise on pay at a time of sky-high unemployment. …Learn More