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How Older Workers Weather Layoffs

By Motoko Rich, The New York Times

May 15, 2012

While the recession and its aftermath have been particularly rough on the youngest workers, the oldest workers may end up suffering the longest.

A new Government Accountability Office report on unemployed older workers looks at the difficulties they face finding new jobs if they are laid off, and how their financial security in retirement may be compromised as a result.

As has been documented, older workers have not been laid off at the same rate as younger workers, but once they lose their jobs, they tend to spend much longer finding new jobs, if they find them at all.

In 2011, 55 percent of workers older than 55 had been out of work for 27 weeks or more, compared to 47 percent of those 25 to 55. Of workers who lost their jobs between 2007 and 2009, just under a third of those 55 to 64 had found full-time jobs by January 2010, compared with 41 percent of those 25 to 54.

The report’s authors convened focus groups of unemployed older workers and prospective employers to discuss the barriers to re-employment, finding that older workers believed they suffered from age discrimination but also had trouble adjusting to new technology and online job searches. Employers were hesitant to hire older workers because of perceived higher health-care costs, as well as concerns that older workers would not stay long enough for the employer to reap a good return on investment.

Those older workers who do find jobs are much more likely to take a pay cut than younger workers. According to the report, 70 percent of workers 55 or older who were laid off between 2007 and 2009 and found a new job are now earning less than in their previous job, compared to 53 percent of those 25 to 54.

At the same time, older Americans are trying to work longer. The labor force participation rate – the proportion of people of an age cohort who are either working or looking for work – has steadily risen since 1990 for workers 55 or older. People are living longer and healthier lives, but are also trying to save more for retirement.

But those who are laid off and never find another job can see their retirement savings shrivel as they spend fewer years paying into employer-based plans and Social Security once they are out of work. Some older workers who lose their jobs also draw down from their employer-based pensions or 401(k)s to cover living expenses before they are officially eligible for retirement, and those who have no other options are very likely to claim Social Security early.

By doing so at 62 rather than 65 or 66, these workers will receive lower monthly payments for life. In a simulation, the report’s authors estimated that a person who stopped working at 62 and began collecting benefits would receive a median monthly benefit of $909, about 25 percent less than the $1,212 per month available to those who hold off claiming Social Security until age 66. A person who lost a job at 55 and began collecting at 62 would have a median benefit of just $855 a month.

For those trying to get by primarily on Social Security benefits, such low levels “could become problematic as retirees age and if health care costs and premiums continue to increase,” the authors wrote.

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