I thought I was set for life is the most common phrase I heard in interviews with older Americans who lost their jobs as a result of the recent recession. Over their careers, they had received promotions, praise, and bonuses from companies such as AT&T, Panasonic, Pfizer, and Weirton Steel. Then one day, sometime after the economic downturn began in 2008, they were told they were no longer needed and ushered out the door of the company where they had worked for more than 20 years.
They were shocked. They had children who depended on them, elderly parents who needed their support, and bills and mortgages to pay. Compounding the impact of sudden unemployment, they found that their homes were underwater and their hard-earned savings were plummeting in value as the U.S. housing and financial markets tumbled downward. One more blow: When they lost their jobs they also lost their health insurance.
In early 2010, inspired by Studs Terkel’s masterpieces Working and The Good War, filmmaker Sam Newman and I began conducting video interviews with these unemployed workers, born during the era of general economic prosperity and optimism in the years between 1946 and 1964. We posted 100 of the interviews on our website, Over 50 and Out of Work. The site is also a repository of video interviews with economists, psychologists, and researchers who give the individual stories a national perspective and context.
Our conversations led us to make a documentary—Set for Life—that follows three of the unemployed workers over a period of two years. We hope it will gain a wide audience, because our mission— with the website as well as the documentary—is to help unemployed older workers get back into the labor force, by improving the cultural perception of older workers and by influencing public policy.
Joe Price, a third-generation steelworker from Weirton, West Virginia, has been laid off seven times over the course of his 25-year career in the mill, but his most recent two-year layoff, which began in 2009, appears to be permanent. Joe’s plight raises many issues: the decline in U.S. manufacturing that was accelerated by the Great Recession, the role of unions in a highly competitive global economy, as well as the relationship between educational attainment and employment.
Deborah Salim, of Conway, South Carolina, worked for 15 years in the records department at a local community college until she lost her job in 2008 due to government budget cutbacks. Deborah’s saga illustrates that the recent recession affected not only private-sector employment but also employment in the public sector. It also reveals how the downturn squeezed out many low- or mid-level white-collar workers whose tasks were distributed to other employees or whose jobs were eliminated by technology, resulting in a “hollowing out” of the workforce with fewer opportunities for that stratum of workers.
George Ross, a Vietnam veteran and an information technology project manager in Livermore, California, lost his job in 2008. He searched for work until he was notified that his son, Jason, a Marine, had stepped on a buried mine in Afghanistan while on patrol. George’s story portrays the timeless burden that families bear when their sons and daughters go to war and return home injured, but George’s joblessness adds immeasurably to the problems he and his family are facing during Jason’s rehabilitation.
While the three main characters in Set for Life search for work in today’s daunting job market for older workers, they suffer financial woes, self-doubt, and health concerns. Thrust by the recession into a quest they never expected to face late in life, they ponder deeper questions that are relevant to everyone: What defines my self-worth? What is my definition of happiness? Can I reinvent myself? Can I prepare for and accept change?
As the U.S. economy continues to falter, the themes and issues explored in Set for Life remain timely and topical not only for boomers, but for all Americans.
Susan M. Sipprelle is a writer, journalist, and founder of Tree of Life Productions. She adapted this post from a column published in September by StayThirsty Media. “Set for Life” is an official selection of this year’s Massachusetts Independent Film Festival and Louisville’s International Festival of Film.