Baby boomers have long been associated with cultural and personal changes. But as many have lost jobs and faced long-term unemployment in the Great Recession, career change has been difficult.
Jack Frech, director of Athens County Job and Family Services in southern Ohio, said he often sees firsthand unemployed baby boomers having a hard time with a career transition.
“They’re working at fast-food places, restaurants, waiting tables, they’re working in retail,” he said. “It’s very tough out there.”
Mr. Frech’s observation is correct, studies say. Older workers — age 55 and above — have the lowest re-employment rate of any demographic group, according to a research paper released last year by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.
Although workers of all ages have been affected by the Great Recession, older workers have fared especially poorly, the Heldrich Center found.
These workers tend to remain out of work longer, are less likely to be re-employed, and tend to experience sharper declines in wages than younger workers when they do find new jobs. Although 7 in 10 out-of-work older workers reported they considered changing their careers to find new jobs, only 12 percent enrolled in training for that purpose, the researchers found.
Why? Reluctance to change careers before connecting with another employer in their industry and lack of funds to pay for the costs of education and training, according to the paper.
Bill Turner, work force administrator in Trumbull County, in northeast Ohio, said his agency sees a mix of people who do and don’t want to change fields. Many people must first deal with the shock and trauma of losing a job and stabilize their lives and finances before they figure out their next step, such as a new career field, he said.
Mr. Frech said many older workers end up in service jobs rather than retool for a new career because of the expense of education. By contrast, a service job fulfills the immediate need for income and fits with many boomers’ ability to work hard.
“They have a good work ethic. They show up. They follow orders,” he said.
The Heldrich Center study notes that the current unemployment system is not well suited to address the problems of older workers in a prolonged recession who “may need to undertake long-term — and expensive — retraining programs in order to find another job.”
The study suggests linking unemployment payments with education and retraining services for workers who are too young or financially unable to retire. “Without additional assistance, millions of older workers will be left behind when the economy recovers and will suffer continued financial crises.”
The baby boomers James Ford sees tend to fall into three categories: people fearful of a career change, those eager to make a change, or those who must make a career change because they have no other option.
The last category often are forced to take whatever low-wage job they can find. Mr. Ford, deputy director of Ross County Job and Family Services in southern Ohio, said many laid-off older workers don’t change careers because the idea is simply too daunting or because they fear that employers won’t hire them because of their age.
When older displaced workers do find jobs, they typically experience sharp wage declines, according to a policy paper released last year by the Urban Institute.
But Joe Catalano, who coordinates the employment ministry at Blessed John XXIII parish in Perrysburg, said many of the laid-off professionals he helped didn’t need to retrain for a new field; they just needed to improve their resume writing, networking, and job-search skills. With the notable exception of some who had worked in the auto industry, most didn’t want to change fields, he said.
“I suspect it’s a comfort thing,” he said. “The idea of changing is probably pretty threatening.”
But for others, learning a new skill or earning another credential is a necessity.
Doris Beach is employment and training coordinator at Experience Works in Toledo, a national organization that helps older adults find jobs.
She encourages the clients she works with to retrain and learn new skills. Some of the job-seekers she works with are learning to install security systems, training to drive trucks or forklifts, and getting certified to be early childhood educators or nurse’s aides.
“I don’t see changing careers as a problem for baby boomers,” said Ms. Beach, 74. “They have a work ethic — whatever it takes to get the job done.”
A recent brief from the National Employment Law Project also noted some older workers are considering or have already taken up the ultimate career change — early retirement.
“With such limited job prospects for older unemployed workers, forced early retirement seems a more likely possibility for many. In fact, two-thirds of older respondents [in a recent survey] had taken up Social Security or planned to do so as soon as they are eligible,” according to the employment law project.
Are boomers, who came of age in the era of upheaval in the 1960s and ‘70s, more able to adapt and change? Mr. Turner isn’t sure.
“Those of us that came through the ‘60s and ‘70s, we were pushing for change, but for lack of a better term, I guess we all got civilized,” he said with a laugh. In the end, “people do what they have to do,” he said.
Ms. Beach added, “They’re living longer, they’re educated, and most of them want to continue to contribute. You can’t just count them out.”
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