The Great Recession has taken a particularly challenging toll on workers age 50+, or more accurately, on former workers. And by “workers” I mean everyone who depends on employment for income… maintenance workers, teachers, accountant managers, executives…everyone. Unlike the 20-something who is struggling to start a career, the 50+ employee is struggling to finish a career. For many, it is as though the pilot turned off the seat belt sign and asked passengers to disembark… 20 minutes from the airport. Ouch. Unless you have a really good parachute that is one rough landing.
It would be different if we had gambled the time away eating bonbons while waiting to hear of our good fortune from Ed McMahon. But, we didn’t. Many answered a call-to-action described in our grandchildrens’ history books. The 1957 Sputnik Crisis launched the space race followed by the National Defense Education Act. Billions of dollars poured into the U.S. educational system, with an emphasis on science, math, leadership and increased participation of talented young women in the workforce.
President John F. Kennedy challenged the next wave of baby boomers to “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” Emphasis on “you”… as in “you and me”. This was a time of personal expectations and personal responsibility that we were proud to accept. We stood up and trained to “become” something (welder, accountant, paralegal, manager); something we would be until retirement if we did our part. For decades we showed up on time, worked long hours, learned new skills, adapted, changed, changed again and survived increasingly creative office politics. And then it ended…20 minutes from the airport.
So, what now? Social, philanthropic and government programs have emerged to address the employment needs of this population. However, many programs focus on individuals who are financially ready for retirement and want to “give back” through meaningful non-profit (and frequently non-paycheck) work. Great. Wonderful. The world will be a better place because of your work. Thank you. But that doesn’t help the unemployed 50+ individual who is not financially ready for retirement.
Retraining may be an option. For the past year I have tracked adult educational programs, a whole slew of which are geared for the 50+ worker. Cool, yes. As a generation baby boomers are learners, holding more degrees than our grown children. Thus many are willing to retrain, borrow modestly for tuition and live like students (even with our own student.) Recent partnerships between community colleges and businesses sound like perfect opportunities for displaced adults to retrain quickly for actual paying jobs. Yet marketing materials I reviewed from several business sponsors target the 20-somethings. The message: enjoy the class but we’re planning to hire your niece.
Facing hundreds of resumes per open position companies do often choose younger workers; and for many legitimate reasons such as attitude and cultural fit. Yes, we want our niece to find a job. We simply would like an opportunity to finish our careers also. After landing at the airport please. Our knees no longer handle those big jumps. My question to you is simply this: How do we build a bridge back into the workforce for the 50+ worker? What needs to occur from both sides – the corporation with a job and the 50+ applicant – in order for 50+ workers to once again bring the best they have to offer to a company, to the economy and to society?