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50-Plus Voters and the Economy

What Ohioans think about political promises to create jobs and boost incomes

En Español |Geraldine Vince has been out of work for three years and worries that employers in her Euclid, Ohio, hometown won't hire a 51-year-old with gray in her hair.

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Michael Kirek, 52, is paying his bills by picking up shifts as a security guard in Akron but is anxious to get back to the work he trained for in information technology.

And Joe Manfredi, 57, of Cleveland repeats a frequent middle-age worker's lament: When times got tough, his employer replaced the higher-paid veterans with 20-something freelancers who work on the cheap.

These are challenging times for Ohioans, particularly 50-plus workers contending with a painfully slow recovery from a brutal recession. The judgment of these voters — whether President Obama or Mitt Romney offers a better plan for the future — may well determine the election.

Ohio is a state where Democrat-friendly union labor is honored: Youngstown is home to the Historical Center of Industry & Labor, and the Union Workers Memorial Bridge crosses Cleveland's Cuyahoga River. But it's also a state where many voters, especially older workers, are unhappy with the status quo. The nationwide pessimism seems deeper in Ohio, even though the state's unemployment rate is below the national average. To Ohio voters, the recession was another blow to a state already hard-hit by the decline of heavy industries that once were the core of its economy.

Next: Can rebounding auto and steel industries save Ohio? »

"I think part of it's just the blue-collar mentality of the state," said Bob Fiala, 59, an architect in Willoughby. "They just have this attitude of 'work hard, be loyal, show up to work every day, and you'll get through somehow. You get a job, you'll have it your whole life.' And that's being taken away from them.''

Kirek was seeking steady work as he visited a career fair in Independence. He plans to vote Republican, since he doesn't like "where the country is." But he has little hope that either candidate can make things better. "They can't really relate," Kirek said.

At each of Vince's job interviews, she senses that the young managers are responding to her age. "When they look at you and they see a little bit of gray hair, they see you differently," Vince said.

Ohio skews a bit older than the U.S. population at large, and older workers were hit disproportionately hard by the downturn, said Suzanne Kunkel, director of the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Oxford.

Still, there are signs of hope: rebounding auto and steel industries, an oil-shale boomlet and two new casinos with hundreds of new jobs. "There's still a lot of unemployment and underemployment," said Patricia Dougan, 61, a staff attorney at Community Legal Aid in Youngstown. But "there's a resurgence going on. You really get a sense of pride when you drive into this city."

And older Ohioans are retiring later and making up a larger chunk of the workforce. "We're at the very beginning of this sweet spot of aging, the changing economy, workforce needs and the new [attitude toward] aging," Kunkel said. "People think, 'I've got quite a few good years left in me.'

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