Over 50 and Out of Work

Posted Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012| Comments (8) rule

Susan M. Sipprelle
Writer, Journalist, and Founder of Tree of Life Productions
Email: susansipprelle@gmail.com

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.

8 responses to “Over 50 and Out of Work”

  1. Adam Sachs says:

    You have to be constantly reinventing yourself even when you don’t see an immediate need. You have to equip yourself with the education and experience to have different options later in life, and not rely on one path. You can’t have overreliance on your current employer — you won’t know their intentions or their financial condition. Start preparing now — there will always be someone younger with your same skills who could take your place.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Adam, and your excellent advice. I hope you will get a chance to see Set for Life. The older workers in it were often blindsided and unprepared when they lost their jobs, but I think you will be amazed to see how hard they strive to get back to work and the resilience they exhibit. I hope the film will help other people make the wise choices you suggest so that they can avoid the great hardships our main characters have faced.

  3. Rosette says:

    It is really a great and helpful piece of information. I am glad that you shared this helpful information with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Joshua says:

    I understand and emphasize with the individuals experiencing this sudden change when they should be getting ready to put life on cruise control. The fact of the matter is Corporate America, isn’t the way to financial independence and security for the future. One must be able to dictate to the market rather than be controlled by it. I’m talking about entrepreneurship, financial freedom, and the American dream.
    It’s never to late to reinvent yourself, get up , get out, and make a way. Primerica Financial Services was built to serve individuals who no longer want to be controlled by the bean counters.
    Freedom lives here. I’m just saying

  5. We interviewed a paper mill worker from the Green Bay, Wisconsin area. He had worked in the same company for 30+ years. When the company downsized, he lost his job. He went back to school to earn an associate’s degree; he was very determined to earn good grades and did. He worked retail part-time at a sporting goods store while attending classes. When we met him, he was very downhearted. Despite all his efforts, he wasn’t getting interviews. He said, “Everyone says — go reinvent yourself — but it’s not easy.” Eventually, he found another full-time job, salaried with benefits. His story is inspiring, but not the rule. Entrepreneurship has not proven to be a good option for most of our interviewees (age 50+) because they need health insurance and can’t afford to buy it when they are unemployed and trying to found a company.

  6. K.David says:

    I hope you will get a chance to see Set for Life. The older workers in it were often blindsided and unprepared when they lost their jobs, but I think you will be amazed to see how hard they strive to get back to work and the resilience they exhibit.

  7. valerie says:

    now increasingly hard to find a job when you are aged, the problem is everywhere in America or Europe, the coup at this time, do not let go of a job to find another

  8. Dorin Frai says:

    I relate to most posts. Self employed for last 10 years and without insurance. Carried insurance for the whole family, however insurance raised premiums times in 6-8 months causing us to drop it.

    Must always look out for new opportunities, skills, education. Must learn to build a strong extended family to have a safety net.