Older white males hurt more by this recession

ByDennis Cauchon, USA TODAY
July 30, 2009, 12:38 AM

— -- 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.

"I never dreamed it would be so hard to put my skills back to work," says Jackson, who was assistant chief pilot at Skybus, a discount airline that went out of business.

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.

"When you lose your job after many years, you're not only looking for a job. You find the nature of employment has changed," says Deborah Russell, director of workforce issues at AARP, the lobbying group representing people 50 and older.

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."

The recession has hit older men hard because job loss has been concentrated in male-dominated fields, such as construction, manufacturing and finance. The decline of unions, which protected employees with seniority, has played a role, too.

"The bloodletting has been in parts of the economy where men work," Grundvig says.

That change is rippling through the economy in troubling ways because older people generally carry greater financial responsibility than younger people.

The loss of a job for an older worker can erase the dominant income of a middle-class family, wipe out savings as retirement nears and deny aging people health insurance when it's needed most.

"So many of these men were coasting to retirement, working at good jobs and earning good pay.

Then, suddenly, it was gone," says Susan Birie, who runs the government's Delaware Area Career Center in Delaware, Ohio.

'What's wrong with me?'

Jackson, the airline pilot, has a lovely house and barn in Delaware, an affluent Columbus suburb. Active in church, Jackson's family has taken troubled youths into their home.

But after nearly two years without work, Jackson is dispirited. He made the last house payment he could afford in June. He has depleted his savings and 401(k) retirement account and sold expensive machining equipment that he used for a hobby and extra income.

He has no health insurance. His wife is not getting medicine she needs. An adopted child has government-provided insurance.

Jackson has been turned down for jobs that he was well qualified for, such as training pilots. One job went to a pilot who used to work for him.

"I keep asking myself, 'What's wrong with me?' I used to be successful. I used to be confident," Jackson says.

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.

Montgomery made $25.80 an hour maintaining machines at an insulation factory in Newark, Ohio. He's been shocked at the low wages — $10 an hour or so — for some jobs available now.

"I can't pay my bills on those wages," he says. "The pay is hardly better than my unemployment check."

Low wages are not just a financial blow, says Birie, the employment counselor. It's a blow to the men's self-esteem.

"It's very difficult to be the primary breadwinner, then to be offered — despite all your skills and talent — a job that pays $10 an hour," she says.

The demands of new jobs can be unsettling for older workers, too. There are truck-driving jobs in Ohio, Birie says. But older men often find the lifestyle — being away from home for days at a time — to be grueling, lonely and hard on their established family life.

Georgia Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond says the nation's retraining programs were caught unprepared for the onslaught of unemployed older men. The training programs had been aimed mostly at women, a legacy of welfare reform.

"This is a masculine recession. We need to adjust," he says. Two-thirds of those seeking job training today are men — the reverse of two years ago, Thurmond says.

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.

John Beckley, 54, a design draftsman laid off in January, has cut back on pills to save $150 a month. He has diabetes and high blood pressure.

"The medication is killing me moneywise," he says. When he cuts back his NovoLog insulin, "I feel a little worse, but I don't have a choice." He's still spending $700 a month on medicine.

The economic stimulus bill has been a savior for most of the unemployed men. The stimulus law contains a little-noticed provision that has the government pay up to 65% of the cost of continuing on a former employer's health insurance plan.

Timothy Miller, 56, who made roof trusses at a Weyerhaeuser plant, had his family's health-insurance premium cut from $838 a month to about $400 when the program took effect. He desperately needs health insurance because his wife has a pituitary gland tumor and extensive diagnostic tests are needed.

Canaris, the quality-control engineer, is paying $400 of his family's $1,300 monthly premium while he looks for employment.

However, the health-insurance subsidy is an imperfect solution to the men's worries.

The health-insurance subsidy lasts only nine months and covers only workers laid off between September 2008 and the end of this year. It doesn't cover workers whose employer goes out of business, ending the health care plan altogether.

Green, the technology executive, has been getting by on his wife's health insurance from her $10-an-hour day care job. But she was recently told the day care center, subsidized by a bank for employees, would close Sept. 30.

"Thank God I'm almost old enough to get Medicare," Green says.

Reinvention at 55

Amid the sudden downward financial turn in their lives, theseunemployed men are seeking ways to reinvent themselves, personally and professionally.

They report unemployment has forced them to live healthier — less fast food and more homegrown vegetables.

Canaris is growing beets, potatoes and other vegetables that he never had time for before.

Miller has a garden, too, and the big, burly, blue-collar worker is riding a bicycle — an activity that surprises even him. He has lost 5 pounds.

Miller regrets he fell for easy credit to buy a nice truck during his high-paying days at Weyerhaeuser. "What was I thinking?" he wonders.

Today, he's thinking about becoming an electrician's apprentice, perhaps even an electrician. "The world's changing. I need to adapt."

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.

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