By ALINA TUGEND
Published: July 26, 2013 New York Times
I WAS recently talking to a friend at a party whose husband — in his 60s — has been unemployed for more than two years. While there are many challenges, she said, one of the hardest things is trying to balance hope with reality.
She wonders how to support him in his continued quest to find a job in his field of marketing and financial services while at the same time encouraging him to think about what his life would be like if he never worked in that field or had a full-time job again.
“I wanted to move to what I thought was a healthier place. I wanted to turn the page,” said my friend, who asked to be identified by her middle name, Shelley, since she didn’t want to publicize her family’s situation. “He saw it as vote of no confidence.”
For those over 50 and unemployed, the statistics are grim. While unemployment rates for Americans nearing retirement are lower than for young people who are recently out of school, once out of a job, older workers have a much harder time finding work. Over the last year, according to the Labor Department, the average duration of unemployment for older people was 53 weeks, compared with 19 weeks for teenagers.
There are numerous reasons — older workers have been hit both by the recession and globalization. They’re more likely to have been laid off from industries that are downsizing, and since their salaries tend to be higher than those of younger workers, they’re attractive targets if layoffs are needed.
Even as they do all the things they’re told to do — network, improve those computer skills, find a new passion and turn it into a job — many struggle with the question of whether their working life as they once knew it is essentially over.
This is something professionals who work with and research the older unemployed say needs to be addressed better than it is now. Helping people figure out how to cope with a future that may not include work, while at the same time encouraging them in their job searches, is a difficult balance, said Nadya Fouad, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Psychologists and others who counsel this cohort need to help them face the grief of losing a job, and also to understand that jobs and job-hunting are far different now from how they used to be.
“The contract used to be, ‘I am a loyal employee and you are a loyal employer. I promise to work for you my entire career and you train, promote, give benefits and a pension when I retire.’ Now you can’t count on any of that,” she said. “The onus is all on the employee to have a portfolio of skills that can be transferable.”
People in their 20s and 30s know that they need to market themselves and always be on the lookout for better opportunities, she said, something that may seem foreign to those in their 50s and 60s.
If a counselor or psychologist “doesn’t understand how the world of work has changed, they’re not helping at all,” she said. “You can’t just talk about how it feels.”
In response to this concern, Professor Fouad and her colleagues have drawn up guidelines for the American Psychological Association to help psychotherapists better assist their clients with workplace issues and unemployment. It is wending its way through the association’s committees.
Of course, not everyone who is unemployed and over 50 is equal. For some, the reality is that they need to find another job — any job — to survive. Others have resources that can allow them to spend more time looking for a job that might have the salary or status of their former position.
In the first case, Professor Fouad said, “You need to decide what is the minimum amount of money you can make and how to go about finding it.” In the second case, she said, it’s necessary to examine what work means to you and how that may have to change.
Is it the high social status? The identity? The relationship with co-workers? It is important to examine these areas, perhaps with the help of a professional counselor, Professor Fouad said, to discover how to find such meaning or relationships in other areas of life.
Sometimes simply changing the way you look at your situation can help. My friend Shelley’s husband, Neal, who also asked that I use his middle name, said the best advice he received from a friend was “don’t tell people you’re unemployed. Tell them you’re semiretired. It changed my self-identity. I still look for jobs, but I feel better about myself.”
He also has friends facing the same issues, who understand his situation. Such support groups, whether formal or informal, are very helpful, said Jane Goodman, past president of the American Counseling Association and professor emerita of counseling at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.
“Legitimizing the fact that this stinks also helps,” she said. “I find that when I say this, clients are so relieved. They thought I was going to say, ‘buck up.’ ”
And even more, “they should know the problem is not with them but with a system that has treated them like a commodity that can be discarded,” said David L. Blustein, a professor of counseling, developmental and educational psychology at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, who works with the older unemployed in suburb of Boston. “I try to help clients get in touch with their anger about that. They shouldn’t blame themselves.”
Which, of course, is easy to say and hard to do.
“I know not to take it personally,” Neal said, “but sure, I wonder at times, what’s wrong with me? Is there something I should be doing differently?”
It is too easy to sink into endless rumination, to wonder if he is somehow standing in his own way, like a cancer patient who is told that her attitude is her problem, he said.
Susan Sipprelle, producer of the Web site overfiftyandoutofwork.com and the documentary “Set for Life” about the older jobless, said she stopped posting articles like “Five Easy Steps to get a New Job.”
“People are so frustrated,” she said. “They don’t want to hear, ‘Get a new wardrobe, get on LinkedIn.’ ”
As one commenter on the Facebook page for Over Fifty and Out of Work said, “I’ve been told to redo my résumé twice now. The first ‘expert’ tells me to do it one way, the next ‘expert’ tells me to put it back the way I had it.”
Some do land a coveted position in their old fields or turn a hobby into a business. Neal, although he believes he’ll never make as much money as in the past, recently has reason to be optimistic about some consulting jobs.
But the reality is that the problem of the older unemployed “was acute during the Great Recession, and is now chronic,” Ms. Sipprelle said. “People’s lives have been upended by the great forces of history in a way that’s never happened before, and there’s no other example for older workers to look at. Some can’t recoup, though not through their own fault. They’re the wrong age at the wrong time. It’s cold comfort, but better than suggesting that if you just dye your hair, you’ll get that job.”