Maria Heidkamp

Maria Heidkamp

The Great Recession ended almost four years ago (June 2009), but as of February 2013, nearly 2 million people over the age of 55 were still unemployed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly half (46.6 percent) of these older job seekers have earned the distinction of being long-term unemployed—that is, out of work for 27 or more weeks. We know from research done by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, at Rutgers, how devastating unemployment—especially long-term unemployment—is for people’s economic well-being, not to mention their physical and mental health. The Heldrich Center’s director, Carl Van Horn, interviewed people in this situation and reports their stories in his book Working Scared (Or Not At All): The Lost Decade, Great Recession, and Restoring the Shattered American Dream. They describe a “world of hurt” and the frustrating, demeaning, isolating, and frightening state that is unemployment. One man said: “The lack of income and loss of health benefits hurt greatly, but losing the ability to provide for my wife and myself is killing me emotionally.” Do we have a public workforce system in place that can respond?

An increasingly complex job-search process

The reemployment difficulties of many older job seekers are exacerbated by the fact that both the labor market and the job search process are radically different from what they were even a few years ago. According to a recent report by Kathy Krepcio and Michele M. Martin, also of the Heldrich Center, the current labor market is characterized by “constant churn and volatility,” and permanent full-time employment is often replaced by part-time temporary or contingent work. In this unstable environment, Krepcio and Martin reason, even employed workers need to be always thinking about their next job and how to navigate their own career and professional development. Job searches have become far more complex, too, these investigators say; job seekers at all skill levels now need to have sophisticated technology and “personal branding” skills. They have to know how to “optimize their resumes with keywords” and engage in in-depth company research to craft cover letters that will attract an employer’s attention.

Recently, I observed several sessions for job seekers at a local public library in central New Jersey. A volunteer-run peer support group for job-seeking professionals works with the library to host these sessions several times a month. A few weeks ago, 65 people showed up on a snowy Friday morning for a session on how to nail an interview. Most appeared to be older than 40.

Our public workforce system offers relatively little to older job seekers like these. Frankly, it’s not clear that today’s workforce system has made any more sense of the changing labor market and job-search process than the self-help peer group at the library, which at least allows the participants—who generally describe themselves as being “in transition” rather than unemployed—the chance for some camaraderie as they struggle to navigate their futures.

De-skilling the older workforce

I routinely meet older job seekers who have made transitions to new jobs, such as the supermarket checkout clerk who used to do marketing for a big pharmaceutical company; the airport van driver who used to work as a newspaper editor; the other airport van driver who used to work for Hewlett Packard; the cable repairman who used to be in finance. The cable repairman is happy, because he has health insurance again for his family after two years without; he gets free Internet service; and he believes this job will be a stepping stone to the career in information technology that he hopes to have eventually. A new research paper by the Canadian economists Paul Beaudry, David A. Green, and Benjamin M. Sand offers evidence that the movement I have observed of high-skilled workers moving down the occupational ladder and taking jobs formerly held by lower-skilled workers is more than anecdotal. Their findings show it is a trend, and they’ve given it a name: “de-skilling.”

Many other older job seekers can’t seem to get a break at all. Recently published research that I conducted with William Mabe and Barbara DeGraaf, also of the Heldrich Center, suggests that their problem is not that they insist on pay commensurate with their experience, but rather that employers believe they will do so, and suspect, as well, that their skills will prove to be out of date.

The recession’s aftermath has made clear that in today’s volatile labor market and evolving economy, we need to rethink a public workforce system that can make lifelong learning and far better career navigation possible for those in transition—a state of being that may become the new normal as we all become constant job seekers.


Maria Heidkamp
Senior Project Manager
John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey