Dean Canaris, 56, a quality engineer for a Honda automotive supplier, was laid off in April and out the door in 30 minutes with no severance.
Harry Jackson, 55, an airline pilot and supervisor, lost his job in 2007 and, to his surprise, has found it nearly impossible to get another job.
Mark Montgomery, 53, was let go from an Owens Corning insulation factory in April and can’t afford his $575 monthly mortgage payment.
These men from the Columbus, Ohio, area are the unusual new faces of joblessness in this groundbreaking recession: older men cut loose from employment at the peak of their earning power and work experience.
In previous recessions, veteran workers were largely spared the pain of widespread job cutbacks, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Layoffs tended to be concentrated among younger workers: The younger you were, the more likely you were to get fired. Traditional, bread-winning older males–especially white men–were the least vulnerable.
Not so today. Aging Baby Boomers are suffering a harsh employment bust.
Jobless rates for men and women older than 55 are at their highest level since the Great Depression, government data show. White men over 55 had a record 6.5% unemployment rate in the second quarter, far above the previous post-Depression high of 5.4% in 1983. The jobless rate for older black men was higher–10.5%–but more than a percentage point below its 1983 peak.
The most remarkable change is in the unemployment rate for black women: 12.2%, far below the historic peak of 20% in 1983. Hispanic unemployment is about 6 percentage points below historic highs, too.
In other words, this recession has shrunk the racial gap in unemployment, largely because white men are doing so much worse than usual.
Those above 55 also are spending more time than ever between jobs. Older workers spend an average 27 weeks between jobs, about five weeks longer than younger workers.
But the cocoon of protection that experience once brought has unraveled in this downturn.
“This recession has gone far deeper into layers of society than we’ve seen in the past,” says Nelse Grundvig, an economist at the North Carolina Employment Security Commission. “People losing jobs are increasingly male and increasingly older.”
That change is rippling through the economy in troubling ways because older people generally carry greater financial responsibility than younger people.
‘What’s wrong with me?’
The unemployed older men believe their age and experience works against them, not for them.
“Gray hair is the worst thing you can have when applying for a job,” says John Green, 64, a former technology manager at banks and other corporations.
The men say experience can make them less marketable because employers think they want higher pay. There’s some truth to that.
Health care hardship
The need for health insurance is the financial problem that dominates the life of unemployed, older men.
Four of the six men interviewed for this story reported that they or a family member weren’t getting needed medical care because they simply could not afford it.
Reinvention at 55
Nearly all of these unemployed men have a plan–and a touch of optimism.
Canaris plans to get certification in performance excellence and statistical methods. That will make his quality-control skills more transferrable between industries.
He has leads on jobs in New Hampshire, West Virginia and Ohio. He may end up working for a defense contractor or a truck manufacturer. He has two interviews scheduled.
“All I know is I’m optimistic. I have skills and I’m opening up my range to new possibilities,” he says.