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Losing Your Job After 50

Three stories of real people facing real challenges

JOB LOSS

Dave Tindall, a 54-year-old construction project manager, never expected to have a business meeting before his morning coffee kicked in. But at 8 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 3, he heard a knock on the door of his home in Fort Wayne, Ind. He figured it was a neighbor looking to borrow something. Instead, it was his boss and his boss’s two sons. They had come to say they were letting him go, and to collect his company credit card and his keys to the company car.

Tindall, who worked for the family-owned construction firm for nine years, felt “like a deer in headlights,” he says. “Maybe I was naive, but I didn’t see this coming and I didn’t plan for it. Now I have to start over.”

He’s not alone. The number of older workers losing their jobs is growing faster than any other age group—from 3.2 to 5.2 percent in the past year. It rose to 5.6 percent in February.

Starting over is never easy, but older workers face added challenges: There are fewer jobs, they’re harder to find, the search takes longer—typically 25 weeks for a 55-plus job seeker compared with 18.7 weeks for someone younger—and the salary is often lower.

And then there are emotional issues. Since he lost his job, Tindall fills his days with chores like laundry, dishes and being “a human alarm clock” to wake his wife up so she can get to her job at a workshop for the mentally and physically challenged. But, says Tindall, there is a vacuum.

Layoffs can be “especially painful” for older, experienced workers, says Maxine Hartley, an executive coach in New York. “Their losses become intertwined with their sense of self,” she says. “It’s a hard lesson when you learn that you are expendable.”

The Tindalls have since cut spending, and Dave Tindall has gone on unemployment. “I knew I was entitled to it,” he says, “but I felt bad applying.” Tindall, who collects a little more than $350 a week in benefits, is still looking for work in the building trades, which he believes will pick up again. “I’m hopeful,” he says. “I think you have to be hopeful; otherwise you’re lost.”

Be flexible. Economic conditions right now are "unprecedented," says John Challenger, of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "But companies that are actively hiring want seasoned personnel, people who can hit the ground running." Be patient: Older workers do find work, often rewarding work, both intellectually and financially," he says.

SAVINGS

Don Hearn, 62, lost his park and recreation supervisor position in November, and suddenly worries started piling up. “It’s very frightening, wondering if you can keep up with all of your expenses, even though you’ve cut back,” says Hearn, who lives in Chelmsford, Mass.

The collapse of the stock market makes any calculation difficult. In the past two years, some $2.8 trillion in retirement savings has been destroyed. So far, he’s taken about $5,000 out of his retirement account, and he worries that his job search may take longer than he anticipated and force him to withdraw more. He’s wondering whether to apply for Social Security early, even though he knows his benefits will be reduced.

Fortunately for Hearn, health care is not a concern, he says, because his wife is a GM retiree: “We have great health care coverage, so for now I’m good.”

Hearn spends his days looking for work, mostly through industry contacts and Internet job searches. "I never thought that I’d be 62 and looking for a job,” he says. “I thought I’d be winding down to a great retirement. But that wasn’t in the cards.”

Hearn remains optimistic. “I have a lot of knowledge,” he says. “The trick at my age is to make that sound like a plus for a potential employer, not just a ticket to a high salary. It’s going to be tough, but all of us mature workers are kind of tough.”

He should know. This is his third layoff in a decade, including one from a job he’d had for 28 years. “I’m here to tell you that an older person can survive the layoff,” he says. “It’s not always pretty, but you do survive.”

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