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Older workers face rejection for their age, length of unemployment

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Mike Duffy prepares for a job interview last September. In the background is his son Ryan. (David Joles/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

Mike Duffy prepares for a job interview last September. In the background is his son Ryan. (David Joles/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As hard as he tried, Michael Duffy couldn’t find a job to match the one he’d lost.

For two decades he earned six figures selling equipment to factories. But at 62, he kept getting turned away, one job interview after another. So last fall he started at Starbucks.

He wears a green apron, wipes tables, mans a cash register that he’s gradually learning and banters with people who order an espresso breve or a Caramel Brulee Latte. He has natural rapport with customers, enjoys winning people over and likes taking care of them.

But he makes less in a day than he did in a half-hour at the peak of his sales career.

“The pay isn’t what we would all hope,” Duffy, of Eden Prairie, Minn., said the day he started. “But it’s something to do and it’s great benefits and we’ll see where it goes.”

It has never been easy to get older, need a good full-time job and not have one. But that’s the predicament for more Americans than ever, and the challenge has gotten steeper in the prolonged recovery. Millions of workers in their 50s and 60s are drifting into the perilous intersection of unemployment, underemployment and retirement.

“The situation is worse today than it has been in past recoveries,” said Sara Rix, a senior strategist at the AARP Public Policy Institute.

The unemployment rate for workers over 55 was higher during the Great Recession than it had been for decades, though it has fallen to a still-high 4.5 percent. Older workers remain jobless on average for about a year, far longer than younger workers.

But unemployment is only part of the unwelcome picture. The number of workers over 55 who have dropped out of the labor force but say they still want a job is about 1.6 million, a 67 percent increase since 2007.

Fair or not, some employers question older applicants’ energy and enthusiasm, their technical knowledge and their willingness to work with young people. A general bias against the long-term unemployed also works against older workers who have been jobless for months or years.

“If the economy were roaring ahead, it would be an easier sell,” said Kevin Cahill, an economist at the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College.

For decades, older workers commonly moved into what Cahill calls “bridge jobs” between their careers and retirement. But today, those jobs are less desirable, so more older workers are ending up in “bridge jobs” they didn’t want.

“The difference, now, post-2008, is that a lot of these transitions are involuntary,” Cahill said. “It’s a huge shift, and it’s the impact of the Great Recession.”

In 1991, when Duffy was in his early 40s and looking for work, he interviewed for three jobs and got three offers.

It seemed easy, and one employer told him a secret that still rings in his ears: He was the perfect age – old enough to have gravitas, young enough to carry the whiff of an up-and-comer. Today, Duffy is the same guy with more experience – still youthful and physically fit. But after six years of intermittent employment and dozens of fruitless job interviews, he earns $7.75 an hour working part-time. He hasn’t given up, but he has learned that in a sluggish labor market, his job candidacy has lost its shine.

The problems of older workers are a mix of things they can control and things they can’t. Sixty-four percent say they’ve either seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace, but they’re also up against a weak, changing job market and the well-established bias against hiring the long-term unemployed.

“There’s this perception that if you’ve been out of work for seven months, there must be something wrong with you,” said Rix, the AARP Public Policy Institute strategist. “It is also legal to discriminate against people who are unemployed – and by that I mean you don’t have to hire them – and that’s a really tough one.”

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