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Baby boomer joblessness lasts longer, hits harder

CLEVELAND (AP) — For most of their lives, baby boomers knew an America ascendant, a nation that incited their occasional fury but rarely let them down.

Fueled by new ideals and rock and roll, they developed a counterculture, protested the Vietnam War and marched for civil rights.

Through it all, the boomers radiated optimism, and why not? After swelling the college ranks, they moved up with each new degree and contact, becoming the yuppies who laid the foundation of the business world.

Then came the Great Recession, a calamity emerging as another defining moment for a fabled generation.

The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression hurt young and old, but it saved its harshest slights for the children of the baby boom, the demographic bulge of Americans born from 1946 to 1964.

Seemingly overnight, members of a generation once called forever-young have been made to feel over-paid, over-experienced and over-aged. Baby boomers suffered layoffs and setbacks at record rates in recent years. Many will never fully recover, having lost too much too late in life.

That collective sigh gathering in Ohio and other graying states comes from a vaunted generation suddenly fearful and bewildered.

Unemployment spiked for all age groups in the recession and it remains highest for young workers. But displaced baby boomers face their own special purgatory. Once unemployed, older workers are out of work longer. And the older they are, the harder it is to get back to hard-earned careers.

Many a Woodstock alumnus has slipped into the era's most dreaded classification: long-term unemployed.

A recent national survey found that job seekers 55 and older had been out of work a numbing 56 weeks, which is 20 weeks longer than the average furlough for younger job seekers. More than half of older job-seekers were considered long-term unemployed, having been out of work six months or more.

Throw in plummeting home values, diminished 401k plans and threats to Medicare and Social Security, and it's no wonder many baby boomers now look warily toward retirement and question what happened to their world.

"We find ourselves at the vortex of a perfect storm," said Frederick Lynch, a sociologist who forecasts a contentious future for boomers in his book, "One Nation under AARP: The Fight Over Medicare, Social Security and America's Future."

Anticipating steady labor and a comfortable retirement, Lynch said, his generation met globalization, outsourcing, game-changing technology and a preference for younger workers.

As they face layoffs and rejection, some older workers blame age discrimination. Others cite simple economics. Experienced workers tend to earn higher salaries, and stress the company health care plan, making them fatter targets for downsizing employers.

Older workers are also, according to the stereotype, slower to embrace new technology and new ways of doing things. That can make landing a job far tougher for an unemployed 50 year old, especially with younger generations swelling the crowd.

Dallas Davis, an unemployed sheet metal worker in Cincinnati, took computer classes while looking for work and touted his new skills at job interviews.

"But the job market is so different now," said Davis, 53. "Instead of being one of five people, you're one of 100, or one of thousands going for the job."

For many of the nation's 78 million boomers, retirement planning has been replaced by crisis planning. Those without jobs are scrambling to find one. Those with jobs are hanging on tight.

"I think we're going through this huge fundamental change," said Lynch. "We thought we would have our parents' lives. Then came this earthquake that many people still don't see."


Beware the silver tsunami

The boomers will not suffer alone. There are too many of them, especially in staid, low-immigration states like Ohio, where they dominate the workforce and civic life. As baby boomers struggle, so will their communities. As they put off retirement, younger workers will find fewer job openings, forcing youthful talent to move away.

Already, Ohio's workforce is growing older at a quickening pace. People aged 45 to 64 now account for 53 percent of the workforce, up from 44 percent a decade ago, lending the Buckeye state one of the oldest workforces in America.

Some demographers warn of a "silver tsunami" as an increasingly older population draws on scarce public resources.

Kathryn McGrew understands the alarm but thinks the challenge can be met.

"The thinking goes, our society is aging so fast, we're going to be hit with an avalanche of older people demanding services we can't provide," said McGrew, a gerontologist and research fellow at the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

"We think there are ways that society can adapt," she said, like by adjusting Social Security and Medicaid benefits. That will require political consensus.

The individual challenges will be harder to overcome. Losing a job, like losing a loved one, is one of life's tragedies. It's a tragedy easier to recover from when you're twenty or thirty something.

Mark Miller had spent almost his entire career in retail management when, at age 55, a district manager called him into the office on January 11, 2011.

"He said, 'We have to let you go,'" recalled Miller, who managed a CVS store and pharmacy in Mayfield Heights. He had heard rumblings of a corporate restructuring growing larger, but he was busy running a drugstore with diminished staff.

"I said, 'Today?'"

"He said, 'Today.'"

No severance package. No bon voyage. Miller was one of hundreds unceremoniously trimmed from the payroll.

At first, he sought to get back into his profession, hoping to manage another store. He figured he and his wife could get by on unemployment insurance and her salary as a legal secretary.

"I like working with people, hiring and training, building a team," Miller said.

But after 14 months without work, he's learned some hard truths. He's now willing to accept part-time jobs, even entry-level positions.

"What I found out is, there's lot of people looking for work," he said gravely.

He's a soft-spoken man who draws strength from a supportive wife and from his faith. He notes that Ray Kroc started McDonald's at age 52.

"You have to believe the sun is behind the clouds," he said. "It's only temporary. You just have to tell yourself that."

At a certain age, temporary setbacks have greater consequences. For people on the threshold of retirement, there's little time left to replenish a bank account or re-launch a career. Yet, that is what many baby boomers must do, experts say.

A generation once credited with changing the rules and changing the world may have to do it again.

"I call these transformative years for baby boomers," said McGrew. "They are in times they did not anticipate and they have to transform the way they think about the future. It can be really exciting, but it can be daunting and scary as well."


Kindred spirits at the job club

Shortly after 10 a.m. on a recent Monday, 19 men and women ringed a table in a conference room at the Shaker Heights Library. The oldest was a 60 something unemployed marketing executive. The youngest, 13 weeks, wriggled in the arms of his dad, an out-of-work librarian.

They were ready for Monday Morning Jump Start, the weekly kick-off meeting of the Career Transition Center, where unemployed boomers come to kvetch, strategize and re-energize.

Bonnie Dick, a veteran career counselor, helped launch the center in December, aiming to get despondent older job-seekers out of Panera and in front of people who can help them.

"So many baby boomers were falling through the cracks," says Dick, a 74-year-old wisp of a woman with the energy of a teenager. "The middle management people were often the first ones to be downsized, and they had nowhere to go."

She starts the meeting by insisting everyone deliver their 30-second commercial, a quick pitch describing who they are, what they do, and why someone should hire them. Dick encourages her clients to polish the act at home in front of a mirror.

This day, 48-year-old Paul Holter, who was downsized out of a management position at Case Western Reserve University, adds a boomer's touch to the routine.

"Read it to your teenager," he suggests. "If I can get to 30 seconds without an eye roll, I know I'm doing pretty good."

The room erupts in laughter, which rains like balm upon weary souls.

Anger and frustration are common emotions at the job club. So is exasperation. Few were prepared for job hunting in a digital age, where employers prefer electronic communication. Resumes disappear into cyberspace. Rare is the job seeker who hears a human voice.

When a club member does score an interview, it's often with someone younger, less experienced.

At one point, Dick cautions a group member from referring to her "extensive experience" in project management, lest she highlight her age.

"I'm proud of my experience," Rivka Goldstein protests good-naturedly. "There's so many people who are young and successful in business. But they're so stupid."

More laughs and even some applause. Dick is enthused.

"Speak well to yourselves," she declares. "Job search can be demeaning. I want you to stop beating up on yourselves."

They depart vowing to network. What will they find in the weeks and months ahead? The outlook is cloudy.


A new job, with less everything

Jobless rates are inching down as employment steadily improves. Even older workers are starting to find work, career counselors say. But it's often in a new field and for decidedly lower status and pay.

Two years ago, Michael Tew was earning $85,000 a year as a production planner for Goodyear in Akron. At 61 years old, he was escorted out the door and into his first taste of unemployment.

Today, he earns $8 an hour as a driver for a Buick dealership. It was all he could find. The gregarious man has accepted that this might be how his career ends.

"Not everybody has a happy ending," Tew said. "This is kind of as happy as mine is getting — and I'm okay with that."

According to a Rutgers University survey of the unemployed, more than half of the Great Recession victims who have found jobs are making less money. Nearly one-third are making more than 30 percent less.

Meanwhile, people are working longer into their golden years and that's not likely to change, says Sara Rix, a senior strategic adviser for the AARP's Public Policy Institute.

Today, 32 percent of people aged 65 to 69 are still in the workforce; compared to 18 percent in 1985.

Many continue working because they enjoy it, certainly, but many soldier on because they must. They lack the financial resources to maintain their lifestyle, Rix said.

In a nationwide survey of older workers, her institute found that more than half doubted they would enjoy financial security in retirement and nearly a quarter had exhausted their savings during the recession.

Patrick Manning sees the change. A 20-year mechanic for Northwest Airlines, Manning, 66, of Dayton, was able to retire with a full pension when the airline drastically cut pay and benefits. But many of his friends and colleagues were not so fortunate. They've been forced to work on, longer than they expected.

"When I was coming up, retirement meant completely leaving the workforce behind if you wanted to," he said. "But that's not an option anymore for many people."


Changing the rules, changing themselves

Faced with such powerful trends, some see a need for boomers to re-assess and re-imagine. Words like "re-careering" have entered the lexicon.

Some displaced boomers need any job they can find. But older workers are also more likely to enjoy some slack, enough resources to try something bold and new. Maybe the kids are grown. Maybe a working spouse has health insurance.

As a generation, boomers still enjoy advantages. They remain wealthier, healthier and better-educated than those that came before them. They wield the political and marketing clout that comes with numbers. And they stand on a potent legacy.

Theirs is a generation that questioned the status quo and reshaped society. Some see a sleeping giant ready to roar again.

"We do have a heritage of protest," said Lynch, the author, "and nothing unites a group like an external threat."

He thinks a civil rights movement for older Americans may be just around the bend.

Others think it equally likely that boomers will seek personal renewal. Instead of changing the world, they will change themselves.

Terah McNeal was directing senior programs for the city of Euclid when she lost her job to funding cuts. She's a specialist in gerontology and she knows her skills are needed.

"I said, 'Oh, I'm going to be back in the saddle in six months,'" she said.

As six months stretched into 12, she reassessed her prospects. Before being let go by Euclid, McNeal had been laid off from East Cleveland. Budget constraints were a new fact of public-sector life.

A curious and outgoing woman, McNeal began paying closer attention to the sustainability movement, the emergence of urban gardens in Cleveland and other cities.

"I've always been passionate about gardening and flowers and herbs," she said. "I like to get my hands dirty."

A bit shyly, she divulges her new strategy. With the support of her husband, she drove off to Milwaukee for weekend workshops in urban agriculture. She aims to join the urban farming movement as a trainer and a crop manager.

"I have had a couple of interviews," McNeal says brightly, standing by a community garden she helps to nurture as a volunteer in Cleveland's Hough neighborhood. "It just seems like this is the new wave."

She's 58. The youngest of her three sons just earned his engineering degree. But she has no interest in early retirement. Not with so much more to do.

"I don't mind being a pioneer," McNeal said. "The boomers pioneered so much. It shouldn't stop with me."


Plain Dealer Data Analysis Editor Rich Exner, Dan Sewell with The Associated Press, Kim Hone-McMahan of the Akron Beacon Journal and Randy Tucker of the Dayton Daily News contributed to this story.


rsmith@plaind.com


Information from: The Plain Dealer, http://www.cleveland.com

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