Carl E. Van Horn, PhD

Carl E. Van Horn, PhD

Being unemployed is frustrating, demeaning, and…frightening. Articles in the paper say we “baby boomers” will have to work for a few more years, especially since so many of us have lost half if not more in retirement “funds.” Now, you tell me, how can I work for a few more years if I can’t even get a job interview?
— Older unemployed worker quoted in Working Scared (Or Not At All): The Lost Decade, Great Recession, and Restoring the Shattered American Dream (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013).

During and after the Great Recession, millions of older unemployed workers struggled to regain a toehold in the labor market. A staggering percentage of the unemployed over age 50 (estimated on the basis of a nationally representative sample tracked from 2009 to 2011 by the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development) were jobless for a long time. In 2011, we re-interviewed workers who lost their job during the depth of the recession in 2009: 80 percent had been searching for more than a year, and almost half had been jobless for more than two years.

Today, more than 2 million older Americans who would work if they could are jobless. Extensive national surveys of older displaced workers provide overwhelming evidence that the vast majority are unemployed for two reasons: workforce demand overall is depressed and employers typically seek younger workers. Extensive national surveys of older displaced workers, including recent research featured in The Atlantic, makes it clear that the stigma of long-term unemployment suffered by older Americans is killing their prospects for reemployment.

Older workers’ long-term unemployment experience is not due to their lack of effort to find another job. In fact, the vast majority of those interviewed by the Heldrich Center for its “Work Trends” surveys diligently sought work, by scouring ads and online job postings and by contacting friends, family, and potential employers.

Nor did these older Americans remain jobless because they refused to work for less money. Two out of three unemployed respondents told Heldrich Center researchers that they would accept a pay cut to land a position. “Work Trends” surveys revealed that six in ten reemployed older workers earned less than they had previously, and 14 percent earned less than half as much.

The especially bleak job prospects for older workers in a generally poor labor market are the by-product of employers’ perceptions about mature workers. Too many employers assume that older workers are more expensive, less productive, and less flexible than younger employees. Employers fret that older workers’ skills have atrophied during months and years of unemployment. Employers may also be reluctant to hire workers who have less than a decade remaining in their careers. Gary Burtless, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, found scant evidence that an aging workforce has hurt U.S. productivity. Even so, employers’ negative views about older workers linger.

Thousands of older workers realize that in order to land another job they need additional education and training. Yet, Heldrich Center research found that few have been able to do so. According to the Center’s surveys, only 14 percent of unemployed workers were enrolled in programs to upgrade their skills and less than 38 percent got financial help to participate in such programs from government sources.

Contemporary workforce development policies are not well-suited to the needs of the long-term unemployed, according to reports by the U.S. Government Accountability Office and the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning. This is especially true for older workers, who may be able to get another job only after extensive retraining. Unfortunately, the federal government’s principal strategies for assisting unemployed workers consist of partial income replacement through unemployment insurance, job placement services, or short-term training programs.

Many policy makers are ignoring older unemployed Americans. Others blame them, discounting the prodigious efforts most make to find jobs. It’s time for policy makers to redesign and fund the workforce and education programs that older unemployed people desperately need so they can return to work.


Carl E. Van Horn, PhD
Professor of Public PolicyEdward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy
DirectorJohn J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Research FellowSloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College