After some 40 years in the business world, Gordon Steen never thought his morning would start outdoors with hyenas, elephants and monkeys.
But that was more than six years ago, before he had closed his 17-year-old shipping-and-packing business. While contemplating his next career move, he became a customer-service representative at the Baltimore Zoo.
“That was a tough job, being out in the sun all day long,” Steen, now 65, said of the seasonal work that ended with winter’s onset. “But I thought it would be interesting, and it was — and the economy hadn’t tanked yet.”
But in the late summer of 2008, the country plunged into a deep economic recession, and Steen soon found himself doing jobs he had never considered as he searched for an elusive full-time position. In the past few years, he has worked part time as a writer, researcher, photographer and leasing consultant.
Struggling senior adults are just part of the national unemployment picture.
In August, the country’s unemployment rate stood at 8.1 percent, or about 12.5 million people, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Economists often accompany such statistics with comments about the uncounted “under-employed,” or those who have stopped searching. Among Americans ages 65 and older, there were 493,000 unemployed people seeking work, up from 480,000 a year earlier, according to the Department of Labor.
Those seniors face some challenges specific to older adults. Although age discrimination is illegal, prospective employers are put off by what they perceive as the seniors’ potential skill deficits, fears about higher health-care costs and concern about longevity in the position.
“With so many of the jobs I am applying for, they involve technology and the people applying are in their 20s and are three times faster,” Steen said. “At the same time, I am very adaptive to learning, and in fact, my ability to learn is a lot better than I thought it would be.”
Jeffrey Davidson, 67, understands what Steen is up against. The online LinkedIn profile of the Los Angeles-area professional exudes skills and experience — “Professional Consultant/Public Speaker/Trainer specializing in PowerPoint, Excel, Word & WordPerfect at PC Consultants” — but it’s still been an uphill battle.
“There are 4,000 people looking for four jobs in any given vocation,” Davidson said. “I will honestly say that right now I’m not trying as hard as I was. It’s a combination of frustration — what I’m looking for isn’t available, I don’t know who to contact. I’m trying to put the word out, nothing’s happening.”
After seeing his consulting work dwindle in recent years, Davidson turned to Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) of Los Angeles for moral support among like-minded people at a weekly group.
“Prior to the onset of the recession at the end of 2008, I don’t think even 5 percent of the individuals seeking services with our agency were over 65,” said Jay Soloway, training and education director for JVS Los Angeles. Today it’s between 15 to 20 percent, he said.
For Jewish vocational service agencies across the United States, the challenges facing seniors have not gone unnoticed. Some JVS operations have seen increases as high as 20 to 30 percent in the senior category, according to Genie Cohen, CEO of the International Association of Jewish Vocational Services. Her operation provides technical, informational and communications support to 28 JVS operations in Canada, Israel and the United States.
“Everybody is struggling to find help and programs for this part of the community,” Cohen said.
Jewish Family Services in Columbus, Ohio, has a “2 Young 2 Retire” program that focuses on financial needs, staying healthy and “encore career choices with the goal of discovering work on your own terms related to personal values, passions and aspirations.” Jewish Vocational Service of Metro-
West in New Jersey runs the Center for Creative Maturity, which covers people older than 45 and targets subgroups such as those with disabilities ages 55 and older, older refugees and immigrants, and even nursing home residents. In Louisville, Ky., the Mature Work program of Jewish Family & Career Services covers assistance with returning to the workforce and developing strategies to enter new careers.
In Los Angeles, JVS started Mature Ability, a program aimed at people 55 and older. The agency also created the eight-week Bank Work$ program, which guides people toward jobs in banking, often as tellers.
“We get into issues of the realities of working today with younger supervisors and maintaining self-esteem,” Soloway said. He is concerned that some people will not take such jobs as they look for something more lucrative and prestigious, which in turn prolongs the job search.
Other issues abound, points out Tracey Paliath, economic services director of Baltimore’s Jewish Community Services. Even one’s e-mail address — or lack thereof — can be a detriment.
“You have to explain to them that they have to apply online and that paper is sort of past,” she said. “And if they have an e-mail that’s aol.com, that sends up a red flag” because some see it as an outdated system.
The challenge is not just teaching people the new methods of job hunting — the Internet did not exist the last time some older Americans were job hunting — but the reality that works in their fields may not return.
Paliath says that about 40 percent of her colleagues’ clients are 50 and older. “We have had people in their 70s and even a couple in their 80s,” she said.
Not everyone is working to recapture what once were retirement funds, she added. Some people are picking up a mortgage or health-care costs for children and grandchildren in difficult economic straits.
Despite the subtle and overt roadblocks, Steen, who has an adult son living at home — “but at least he’s got a job” — is not giving up.
“They talk about the hidden job market, which is people you know who know someone else,” Steen said. “That’s kind of what’s hidden behind the green door, and it takes some imagination to open it.”