Sally and Frankie Stewart felt comfortable and fulfilled in their work as machine operators for Visteon, an auto-parts maker created by Ford Motor Company. The plant in Bedford, Indiana, was clean and well lit, and union wages meant they could send their two children to college. But just after the couple began building a log cabin to replace their weathered home, Visteon started shifting its production to Mexico to cut costs. Sally, 54, was laid off in 2006. Frankie, 56, stayed on until the plant shut down in 2008.
Practically overnight the Stewarts found themselves robbed of their job security—a story that is becoming all too familiar across America. Of the nearly 1.9 million jobs that have vanished since the recession began in late 2007, more than 600,000 belonged to people in manufacturing, many of whom were in their final, peak-earning years. That caps a decade in which 4 million factory workers watched their jobs evaporate, many because of imports and the relocation of U.S. factories overseas. "We've never seen such a protracted downturn in manufacturing in modern history," says Bob Baugh, executive director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council. And it's not over yet: the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University predicts Americans could lose 1.1 million industrial jobs in the next 12 to 15 months. "Nobody knows where the bottom is," says Robert Scott, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
The situation is particularly distressing for older workers, who are bearing the brunt of these job losses. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, more than half of recent plant-closing victims are 45 or older. By contrast, the majority of factory workers who are still employed are under 43.
"These are people with 20, 30, 40 years working in manufacturing jobs," says Lynn Minick, a workforce-development specialist at the National Employment Law Project in Indianapolis. "They believed these were going to be the jobs they would retire from."
As factories close and jobs disappear, older workers and retirees are being stripped of hard-earned benefits; working families are being thrown into turmoil. And yet amid the tales of loss and anxiety are occasional stories of hope. While many older workers are struggling to survive, others, such as Sally Stewart, who is now studying to become a medical assistant, have learned new skills—and are doggedly forging new lives.
Older manufacturing workers who lose their jobs are less likely than their younger colleagues to find new ones. Their skills, developed over decades, don't always transfer away from the assembly line. "By the time you're an older worker, you're a fully formed commodity," says Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. "You have specific skills and history, and it's harder to find a match."
Indeed, a 2004 study by John Schmitt, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., found that 24 percent of men and 34 percent of women between 55 and 64 drop out of the labor force entirely after layoffs. And because they have more emotional and financial ties to their communities, it can be harder for them to move somewhere else to work. The intense financial stress that results from job loss can be devastating to workers who watch what they thought would be a secure future disappear.