One of the things we do here at AARP is listen. We listen to our members' dreams and joys, fears and frustrations, collecting literally thousands of stories about how older Americans are living. Unfortunately, it often feels like there's a whole lot more fear and frustration than infectious joy going around.
In fact, in a recent AARP survey, the age 50 and over people we talked to told us they were very worried about everything from the stock market and political gridlock, to losing their jobs, enduring another recession, and bearing the brunt of rising taxes and health care costs.
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We also read our members' stories online. Barbara P., a 62-year-old, emailed us her experience, which she acknowledges is all too common. She lost her job in June, her unemployment benefits are about to run out, and she doesn't want to take the steep cut in benefits that would come with claiming Social Security at her age. Though she looks at job openings every day, she said, she's finding that her skills just don't fit today's economy. "I'm not a nurse or a truck driver, and that seems to be all that's available. I continue to look but, to put it simply, right now I'm between a rock and a hard place," Barbara wrote.
Barbara is hardly alone in her struggle. Unable to live on reduced Social Security and eroded retirement savings, more people say they plan to work longer than they had anticipated. At the same time, older workers are finding it harder to keep their jobs or land new ones.
The unemployment rate for workers ages 55 and older is more than double what it was at the outset of the recession in December 2007. And older workers are staying unemployed longer than younger job-seekers — for 52 weeks compared with about 38 weeks.
While we should all be deeply concerned about the future, we shouldn't stop planning for retirement — and we can't let go of that joyful hope. The reality is that most of us will need to work for far longer than we may have hoped, so we need to proactively manage our current careers — and think creatively about second and third careers that may give us a new sense of purpose.
If you already have a job and you plan to keep it, think about new skills that would help you compete with younger workers. In November, the Society for Human Resource Management surveyed employers about skill gaps they were seeing in their workers and job applicants. Problem-solving, professionalism and communication skills all topped the list. What can you do to fill that gap? You could take on additional job responsibilities, sign up for classes and seminars to improve your writing and computer skills and your use of technology, and maybe even freshen up your wardrobe.
But "staying in the workforce" doesn't have to mean returning to the same job and continuing to do what you've been doing for the past 20 years. The possibilities are limited only by your willingness to prepare, your determination to make things work and your imagination.