Buried in a federal report on unemployment late last summer was a startling statistic: Joblessness among men 55 and older had reached its highest level since the government began tracking the rate in 1948. The rate had almost tripled since the start of the recession to 8.4 percent.
Women in the 55-plus group also suffered a surge in unemployment around the same time, with 6.9 percent out of work. Younger people continued to suffer more joblessness compared with older workers, but the rate had increased at only about half the speed.
Vanishing paychecks usually dictate major change in their families' lifestyle. A job loss may mean the loss of health insurance at a time of life when they need it — yet are not old enough for Medicare. Their self-esteem may also take a beating.
The recession has hit older workers "in their retirement security core in a way that other recessions haven't," says Heidi Shierholz, a labor market economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.
"They are at a stage in their life cycle where they weren't planning on working much longer — and combined with the labor market being at its weakest in 70 years, and the value of their homes and stocks declining," she says. "They're poorer than they thought they would be.
Unemployment rates for older men and women had improved slightly by November but remained near record levels, federal reports show.
Why older men have lost jobs
Several factors are to blame for older men's plight. Some of the industries that have shed the most jobs in the recession, construction and manufacturing among them, are dominated by male workers.
And, unlike in the recession of 1982-83, older men who lose their jobs have tended not to drop out of the workforce and retire, says Richard Johnson, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington. And some who did retire are trying to return to the labor market as their nest eggs — home equity, 401(k)s and other investments — dwindle.
Jessica Baker, a manager at the Florida Department of Elder Affairs' Older Worker Program, knows this trend firsthand.
"I see a lot more people coming out of retirement … people who had been in retirement five, six, seven years — because they're concerned they won't be able to live on their income any longer," she says. "The economy took a toll on their 401(k)."
Instead of moving toward a comfortable retirement, 59-year-old Pedrag Stojnovic is in his second year of a miserable job search.
He was laid off from his job at an Akron, Ohio, steel plant in 2008. Last year, he filed for bankruptcy. This month he was evicted from his home by foreclosure. His unemployment benefits have run out, though there's some possibility they'll be restored by a new financial measure in Congress. For now, he's sleeping in his car.
'It's so hard to find a job'
For Stojnovic and more than 2 million other 55-plus unemployed workers, the approaching winter holidays hold more worry than celebration. "It's so hard to find a job. They look at you and think you're too old, and they don't call you back," says Stojnovic, who has largely emptied his 401(k) account to pay for basic necessities. "This is the longest time I've been without a job."
Sara Rix, a strategic adviser at AARP, says that older workers are staying unemployed longer than younger ones. On average, the 55-plus group had been out of work for 44.3 weeks as of October compared with 33.2 weeks for younger people.
In fact, the plight of people like Stojnovic, who emigrated 38 years ago from what was then Yugoslavia, has become so prevalent that mature workers were dubbed the "new unemployables" in a study released in November by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College.
The study analyzed results from a survey in May of some 1,200 older job seekers conducted by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.
In a tight labor market with, according to federal data, five unemployed workers for every job opening in September, mature workers have found that their age can count against them.