The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 9, 2011

Helping older job seekers

September 9, 2011

Needles in the haystack of last week’s job report are statistics on how much older the unemployed are today than in previous weak job markets. Workers age 55 and older made up about 15 percent of the unemployed last month, up from just 7 percent in 1982, when the unemployment rate was similar. As the ranks of the unemployed gray, many metros also need to “gray” the services they offer to get people back to work.

More older Americans are unemployed today mainly because the population is aging. One in five workers is at least 55 now, the highest proportion since recordkeeping began in 1948. But older workers are also more likely to get laid off than they used to be. True, they are still 15 percent less likely than the age 25 to 54 set to be jobless. (See the latest numbers.) But in 1982, they were 37 percent less likely to be unemployed.

It takes older workers who lose their jobs longer than younger workers to find work. Last month, 55 percent of older unemployed workers had been out of work for more than six months, compared with 43 percent of all the unemployed. These disappointing job searches don’t reflect lack of effort, at least from jobless Americans too young to draw Social Security retirement benefits. No, as our research shows, unemployed workers age 50 to 61 search just as hard as their younger counterparts.

Sometimes searches are feckless because older workers lack up-to-date job search skills—and here’s where local communities can help. Every metro has one-stop career centers run by local workforce investment boards with federal, state, and local funds. These centers combine employment, training, and education services in a single location for unemployed workers. But some such services don’t help older job searchers much. Too few career centers train seniors to find jobs in the internet age, for instance. Yet, older workers who haven’t job-hunted for decades don’t know how to conduct internet job searches or join the professional networking sites. And too few centers offer computer-focused job training that could help older unemployed workers acquire or hone the latest spreadsheet, database, and word processing skills.

There’s more to re-engaging seniors than helping them update their job and job-search skills: some barriers limiting services for older displaced workers also need to go. Right now, the U.S. Department of Labor evaluates one-stop centers and their staff by looking at whether they’ve found good jobs for the unemployed. But since older displaced workers are much less likely than younger job-seekers to find new  jobs that pay what their old job did, the incentive for centers is to help younger unemployed workers first. To give the older unemployed a fair shake, then, DOL should reset its evaluation standards to take account of the age mix of the center’s clientele.

As traditional employer pensions fade away and retirement savings become harder to count on, few older workers can afford to put their feet up and retire when they lose their jobs. Instead, many must keep pounding the pavement to find jobs that will help make ends meet and a comfortable retirement possible. It’s time for local career centers to adapt to this new reality.

Percentage of Unemployed Workers Age 55 or Older

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