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Older, skilled and out of work
Why the over-55 workforce still hasn’t recovered from the recession

06/09/16
By Ryan Lessard news@hippopress.com



 Linda Norris of Nashua is mad, and she’s not going to take it anymore. The out-of-work 50-something has written to the mayor of Boston, attended Congressman Frank Guinta’s town hall meetings and sent her resume to presidential candidates like Donald Trump and John Kasich, all to give a voice to the chronically unemployed. And last month, after reading an article in this paper about New Hampshire’s manufacturing sector and low unemployment rates, she sent her resume to the Hippo.

Seeing talk of a 2.6-percent unemployment rate, job openings and a labor shortage was just too much for Norris to handle.
“This … has my dander up and how!” Norris wrote in the email.
All the media reports and politicians saying how much better the economy has gotten and how it’s getting better strikes a discordant note to people who have decades of experience and college degrees but, interview after interview, still can’t find work. 
 
The secretly unemployed
It’s possible Norris, who’s been unemployed for 11 months, is part of the workforce that’s been having a harder time recovering from the effects of the Great Recession. A deeper look at New Hampshire’s unemployment numbers reveal a trend of higher unemployment rates for the oldest workers, including the most educated, compared to pre-recession rates.
When Norris attends weekly Job Club meetings for unemployed workers in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, she notices that most of those attending are middle-aged or older and often college-educated.
She’s met unemployed people from the manufacturing sector, where she’s worked for 17 years, several graphic artists, a software developer and others with professional degrees.
Overall, unemployment is certainly low, and lower than in virtually any other state by almost any measurement. 
Still, more than 19,300 people in the Granite State were unemployed as of April. 
What is happening largely under the radar is that a growing share of older workers are falling out of work and staying out of work longer, regardless of skill level. Residents aged 55 to 64 are experiencing higher rates of unemployment than the next younger segment. Historically, that segment enjoyed some of the lowest unemployment rates, according to numbers provided by the state Department of Employment Security.
In 2000, unemployment for people aged 55 to 64 was at 1.6 percent, slightly lower than the 1.8 percent rate experienced by those aged 45 to 54. By 2010, in the depths of the recession, both age groups had the same rate of 4.5 percent, but in 2015, after some economic recovery, the older group’s unemployment rate was 3.2 percent, close to the overall rate at the time. Meanwhile, the rate for the 45-to-54 group went back to normal by 2015 with 1.8 percent.
Similar patterns can be seen with workers over 55 who had bachelor’s degrees or graduate-level degrees. 
And in the case of those with only a high school equivalent education level, the unemployment for 55 and older workers went from 0.6 percent in 2000 to 4.8 percent in 2015, going from the lowest rate to higher than the overall rate. 
During the recession, workers aged 55 to 64 with a bachelor’s degree were hit the hardest, with among the highest unemployment rates and the highest durations of unemployment — about 63 weeks on average in 2010 — but as the economy improved, that group didn’t fully rebound.
“It’s still not as good as it’s supposed to be [or] as you could expect maybe with that low unemployment rate,” said economist Annette Nielsen at the labor market and information bureau of DES.
 
Why is this happening?
This is being seen across the country. A GAO report in 2012 said unemployed folks over 55 were the least likely to find another job. And a 2015 AARP report called “The Long Road Back” said the Great Recession left millions of experienced workers without a job when they should have been enjoying their peak earning years.
“Although unemployment rates have been falling, the lower rates masks the reality that many people, particularly ages 50 and older, are still facing,” the AARP report concluded. 
Many surveyed in the report believed age discrimination played a significant role in their struggle to find work. Norris agrees.
“They want all the knowledge and experience but they want it in 25-year-olds,” Norris said in a phone interview.
While discrimination based on age is illegal, employers may be practicing it in non-explicit ways and for more economic reasons like saving on healthcare costs and higher salaries for more experience. 
“If you’re hiring a new person … you still want somebody with experience, but you might tend to see if you can find younger workers,” Nielsen said.
Plus, as older workers aren’t expected to stick around as long as a new generation of workers that these companies often need to train, favoring younger workers can be seen as a way to prevent high turnover. And Nielsen says employers may have viewed the loss of baby boomer workers as a chance to bring in some new blood.
“They like to kind of mold the workforce that’s coming in,” Nielsen said.
But Economist Steve Norton at the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies says the reason highly educated and skilled individuals aren’t finding work has more to do with changes in the job market since the recession. Jobs have come back, but not the same ones.
“[Manufacturers are] not looking to hire a $150,000 executive. They’re looking to hire a $65,000 skilled machinist,” Norton said. “The recession eliminated a lot of those mid- to high-level management jobs that [companies] thought they could do without.”
That may be what’s thwarting Norris’ job search.
“You know what they say when people see my resume? They say, ‘Oh, this is a six-figure person. I’m not hiring her,’” Norris said.
 
Outnumbering the young
And with aging demographics in New Hampshire, the problem is worse here.
“We have the third-highest share of baby boomers in the country,” Norton said.
While the 55-to-64 age group grew by 70 percent over the past 15 years, the share of those who were unemployed in that group rose from about 5 percent in 2000 to about 18 percent in 2015. The 45-to-54 age group grew by 26 percent, and the group’s share of unemployed between 2000 and 2015 stayed around 12 percent.
Norton says those high-paying jobs don’t show any sign of coming back, and workers holding out for them may need to acquire new skills or settle for a lower-paying job. Economists believe that older people with higher ed degrees are unemployed for longer periods because they have likely amassed some wealth that they can dip into while job-searching and waiting for something that better fits their skillsets or desired pay.
“Maybe they have more wealth accumulated and therefore they can choose to wait longer, so they tend to want to wait out for more of a perfect match,” Nielsen said. 





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