Why unemployment is harder for older adults

San Diego area resident Teresa McConnell remembers the seven months of her unemployment clearly.
“I didn’t want to talk to anyone any more, I didn’t want to hear myself say I didn’t have a job and watch people pull away,” she said. “I felt sick and ashamed just saying it.”
Instead, the 54-year-old San Diego resident – who agreed to be interviewed as long as her maiden name was used so she wouldn’t be recognized – became isolated.

“I gained 17 pounds and I was sleeping a lot,” she said. “After six months of being rejected, not even hearing a word back, I started to think maybe I wasn’t really very good at what I do.”

What helped McConnell was her first ‘jobs club’ meeting, suggested by the state unemployment counselor she worked with.

“It was a room full of smart, hard-working talented people – a room where I realized I belonged,” she said. “It was the first time in a long time I saw maybe it wasn’t my fault.”

McConnell’s story very much reflects the pain and stigma that long-term unemployed people – especially those over 45 – can feel.

“There is a really strong stigma attached to being long-term unemployed and people are afraid to come out,” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Ofer Sharone, who has been studying and writing about the issue. “Many fear by doing so they will never be hired again. They are busy trying to cover their status.”
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics most recent data, at least 890,000 of the 1.9 million Californians (of the 9.6 million Americans) who were receiving unemployment compensation in 2012 were unemployed for more than 26 weeks in 2012. The numbers don’t include people who did not qualify for unemployment, such as the self-employed or those whose last job ended before they had worked six months.
The 2013 national statistics for the U.S. – California numbers are not available – found that men and women over 45 were unemployed much longer than younger workers. Older workers needed between 45 and 50 weeks on average to get another job, where younger workers were rehired in 17 to 35 weeks. The length of unemployment increased with age, according to the BLS statistics.
“A study published by BLS a couple of years ago found that once a person has been unemployed for more than 6 months, the probability of that person finding a job was roughly equal to the probability of that person dropping out of the labor force and joining the ranks of the discouraged workers,” BLS spokesman Leo Kay said.
California ranked sixth highest state in the U.S. for discouraged workers and what the BLS calls “involuntary part time workers,” and had higher than average rates for all types of unemployment and underemployment than the national averages in 2013, BLS statistics show.
In June, the Gallup Healthways Well Being Index, a survey of about 357,000 Americans, found that incidence of depression tends to increase with the length of time a person is unemployed – so that after six months of unemployment, people were reporting greater isolation and were twice as likely to be treating for depression as average.  Six months seems to be the critical moment.
“The emotional toll and self-blame are an extremely serious problem – after six months of rejection, people become extremely demoralized and depressed,” Sharone said.
Sharone says he knows of no one who is doing definitive studies of the health effects of longterm unemployment on people over 45– the big picture. But he points to studies that show that suicides have increased in this age group, that more are going without health and dental insurance, and that the number of applications for disability status with the Social Security Administration has spiked since 2010.
Alcohol and drug abuse tends to increase, as does marital discord, according to Tom Long, spokesman for the WorkPlace, a privately funded, Connecticut-based nonprofit that created the Platform to Employment program. P2E ran two pilot programs in cooperation with the state Workforce Partnership in San Francisco and San Diego last year.
“We recognize there is an emotional transition people go through – over time they become depressed, their physical health begins to decline and substance abuse can occur,” Long said. “People feel like they are going through this in isolation – to some degree they are, and there’s very little research we can refer to.”
Part of what made P2E’s pilot run successful was the organization works with behavioral counselors to identify gaps in services to its clients and helps fill them.  That can be food, medical care, counseling, and help with financial concerns – the fight to hold onto their homes, for example.
“We’ve heard stories of clients who went without health insurance and care, about clients who went to the food pantries in the next town over so they wouldn’t run into their neighbors,” Long said. “Most of our clients have been working hard their whole lives and have never had to ask for help and it’s very hard and demeaning to them to be in this helpless, needing position.”
That makes it hard to put on a good face and impress a prospective employer, he said.
Like most job club programs, the P2E focus is on increasing the individual’s initiative:  retool, rewrite, rehire. Counselors work on writing resumes, preparing for job interviews, and getting their clients to network with friends, associates and former co-workers, since older adults are rarely hired through online and recruitment channels.
But that approach, combined with employer incentives – which has earned P2E results of up to 35 percent hired in six months – relies on people feeling strong and outgoing enough to pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.
‘People are told to go out and network – that’s very hard to do for someone who has been affected by long-term unemployment,” Sharone said. “People feel less and less effective and it’s more difficult for them to be open with their colleagues – which is exactly what makes networking effective.”
McConnell found her new job with the help of people she’d worked with before. But it wasn’t easy, she said, and she still doesn’t like to talk about her long months of unemployment.
“I guess I’m still embarrassed that no one thought I was worth anything,” she said. “I don’t want that to ever, ever happen again.”


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