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Aged out; Unemployed workers over 55 struggle to re-enter workforce

Recently, it seems the buzzword “experience” plagues older workers as much as it does younger ones.

In fact, one of the demographics that’s been hit hardest by the recession is the boomer generation, which includes workers 55 years old and over. While this age group’s unemployment rate of around 7 percent is lower than rates for the total labor force, workers aged 25-54 and brand new workers, data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that during the recession both the number of unemployed and the unemployment rate for workers over 55 have increased by a greater percentage than younger segments.

Perhaps even more significant is the length of time unemployed boomers spend without jobs. Where the average duration of unemployment is about 33 weeks among younger people, it’s up to about 44 weeks for workers over 55, which means this demographic is out of work nearly three months longer than its younger counterpart.

Deborah Russell, director of workforce issues for the AARP, said that between the recession, the stiff competition for jobs and the fact that many boomers haven’t been unemployed since early in their careers, it’s a “triple whammy.”

But the factor most affecting the older unemployed, she said, seems to be the considerable change in the job search process in recent years.

“Social networking and applying online are new concepts for older workers who haven’t had to use those strategies,” Russell said. “It used to be word of mouth, face time … things like that don’t work anymore. Now employers want you to post your resume online.”

And it’s not just the application method that’s changed – employers are looking for something different. Now, in addition to good qualifications and experience, hiring managers are looking at how well the candidate fits into the company and the results he or she has achieved in previous jobs.

Scott Baltic, 58, was laid off from his job in trade magazine publishing in 2001. He started his own trade magazine with a partner in 2002, stopped publishing in 2007 at the beginning of the recession and has been freelancing since. It’s been more than nine years since his last full-time job with benefits.

“And these were supposed to be my peak earning years,” he said.

As a fairly successful freelancer, Baltic said he’s able to be somewhat particular about which jobs he applies and interviews for, making sure he’s not seriously overqualified and that he’d enjoy the work. However, he said, being a 9-5 worker again would be nice.

“I never particularly wanted to be a freelancer, and frankly I don’t like it all that much,” Baltic said. “After 9 1/2 years of working alone, it gets old.”

That touches on findings from a 2008 AARP survey in which 70 percent of older workers reported they planned to continue working into their retirement years, with 21 percent citing psychological or social fulfillment as the main reason. Twenty-seven percent said they needed the money.

“Sixty five as a retirement age I think is a joke, particularly post-Great Recession,” Baltic said. “If I can sort of semi-retire when I’m 70 or 72, that’s about as much as I can aim for, which means I’ll be in the workforce for another 15 years or so.”

Stephanie Klein, founder of Experience Factor, a staffing firm that specializes in placing boomers, said experienced workers can provide a lot of value to a company, but they need to know how to effectively highlight their skills.

“Explain not just what you’ve done, but the results you’ve gotten from your work,” Klein said. “[In today’s economy], companies will be reluctant to hire inexperienced people who can’t add value quickly. Be able to clearly articulate your value.”

Results – years of them – are one major advantage that experienced workers have over younger ones, according to Klein.

Both Klein and Russell also noted that keeping morale up during the job search process can be a challenge for those who are unemployed and over 55.

“There is a sense of embarrassment that they’ve lost their jobs, a sense of hopelessness as the time ticks on,” Russell said. “It has a huge impact on their social lives.”

Because unemployment can have such a psychological and emotional effect among members of this demographic, Klein said it’s vital for them to get out of the house and interact with people who are in the same situation. Another productive way to fill time? Volunteering.

“You never know what you’ll learn and who you’ll meet,” she said.

© 2011, Tribune Media Services