Graying Matters: Baby boomers come of age, face struggles

First in a three-day series

By Robert L. SMITH

Plain Dealer

For most of their lives, baby boomers knew an America ascendant, a nation that incited their occasional fury but rarely let them down.

Fueled by new ideals and rock’n’roll, they created a counterculture, protested the Vietnam War and marched for civil rights.

Through it all, the boomers radiated optimism, and why not? After swelling the college ranks, they moved up with each new degree and contact, becoming the Yuppies who laid the foundation of the business world.

Then came the Great Recession in 2007, a calamity emerging as another defining moment for a fabled generation.

The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression hurt young and old, but it saved its harshest slights for the children of the baby boom, the demographic bulge of Americans born from 1946 to 1964.

Baby boomers suffered layoffs and setbacks at record rates in recent years. Many will never fully recover, having lost too much too late in life.

Unemployment spiked for all age groups in the recession, and it remains highest for young workers.

But displaced baby boomers face their own special purgatory. Once unemployed, older workers are out of work longer. And the older they are, the harder it is to get back to hard-earned careers.

A recent national survey found that job seekers 55 and older had been out of work a numbing 56 weeks, which is 20 weeks longer than the average furlough for younger job seekers. More than half of older job seekers were considered long-term unemployed, having been out of work six months or more.

Throw in plummeting home values, diminished 401k plans and threats to Medicare and Social Security, and it’s no wonder many baby boomers now look warily toward retirement and question what happened to their world.

“We find ourselves at the vortex of a perfect storm,” said Frederick Lynch, a sociologist who forecasts a contentious future for boomers in his book, “One Nation under AARP: The Fight Over Medicare, Social Security and America’s Future.”

Anticipating steady labor and a comfortable retirement, Lynch said, his generation met globalization, outsourcing, game-changing technology and a preference for younger workers.

As they face layoffs and rejection, some older workers blame age discrimination. Others cite simple economics. Experienced workers tend to earn higher salaries and stress the company health-care plan, making them fatter targets for downsizing employers.

Dallas Davis, an unemployed sheet metal worker in Cincinnati, took computer classes while looking for work and touted his new skills at job interviews.

“But the job market is so different now,” said Davis, 53. “Instead of being one of five people, you’re one of 100, or one of thousands going for the job.”

For many of the nation’s 78 million boomers, retirement planning has been replaced by crisis planning. Those without jobs are scrambling to find one. Those with jobs are hanging on tight.

Beware the silver tsunami

The boomers will not suffer alone. There are too many of them, especially in staid, low-immigration states like Ohio, where they dominate the work force and civic life.

As baby boomers struggle, so will their communities. As they put off retirement, younger workers will find fewer job openings, forcing youthful talent to move away.

Already, Ohio’s work force is growing older at a quickening pace. People age 45 to 64 now account for 53 percent of the work force, up from 44 percent a decade ago, making the Buckeye State the 10th-oldest work force in America.

Some demographers warn of a “silver tsunami” as an increasingly older population draws on scarce public resources.

Kathryn McGrew understands the alarm but thinks the challenge can be met.

“The thinking goes, our society is aging so fast, we’re going to be hit with an avalanche of older people demanding services we can’t provide,” said McGrew, a gerontologist and research fellow at the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

“We think there are ways that society can adapt,” she said, like by adjusting Social Security and Medicaid benefits. That will require political consensus, however.

Mark Miller had spent almost his entire career in retail management when, at age 55, a district manager called him into the office Jan. 11, 2011.

“He said, ‘We have to let you go,’” recalled Miller, who managed a CVS store and pharmacy in Mayfield Heights. He had heard rumblings of a corporate restructuring growing larger, but he was busy running a drugstore with diminished staff.

“I said, ‘Today?’” “He said, ‘Today.’”

No severance package. No bon voyage. Miller was one of hundreds unceremoniously trimmed from the payroll.

At first, he sought to get back into his profession, hoping to manage another store. He figured he and his wife could get by on unemployment insurance and her salary as a legal secretary.

But after 14 months without work, he’s learned some hard truths. He’s now willing to accept part-time jobs, even entry-level positions.

“What I found out is, there’s lot of people looking for work,” he said gravely.

He’s a soft-spoken man who draws strength from a supportive wife and from his faith.

“You have to believe the sun is behind the clouds,” he said. “It’s only temporary. You just have to tell yourself that.”

For people on the threshold of retirement, there’s little time left to replenish a bank account or relaunch a career. Yet, that is what many baby boomers must do, experts say.

Kindred spirits at the job club

Shortly after 10 a.m. on a recent Monday, 19 men and women ring a table in a conference room at the Shaker Heights Library.

The oldest is a sixtysomething unemployed marketing executive. The youngest, 13 weeks, wriggles in the arms of his dad, an out-of-work librarian.

They’re ready for Monday Morning Jump Start, the weekly kickoff meeting of the Career Transition Center, where unemployed boomers come to kvetch, strategize and re-energize.

Bonnie Dick, a veteran career counselor, helped launch the center in December, aiming to get despondent older job-seekers in front of people who can help them.

“So many baby boomers were falling through the cracks,” says Dick, 74, a member of the Quiet Generation that preceded the boomers. “The middle-management people were often the first ones to be downsized, and they had nowhere to go.”

She starts the meeting by insisting everyone deliver their 30-second commercial, a quick pitch describing who they are, what they do, and why someone should hire them. Dick encourages her clients to polish the act at home in front of a mirror.

new job, less everything

Jobless rates are inching down as employment steadily improves. Even older workers are starting to find work, career counselors say. But it’s often in a new field and for decidedly lower status and pay.

Two years ago, Michael Tew was earning $85,000 a year as a production planner for Goodyear in Akron. At 61, he was escorted out the door and into his first taste of unemployment.

Today, he earns $8 an hour as a driver for a Buick dealership. It was all he could find. The gregarious man has accepted that this might be how his career ends.

“Not everybody has a happy ending,” Tew said.

Terah McNeal was directing senior programs for the city of Euclid when she lost her job to funding cuts. She’s a specialist in gerontology, and she knows her skills are needed.

“I said, ‘Oh, I’m going to be back in the saddle in six months,’” she said.

As six months stretched into 12, she reassessed her prospects. Before being let go by Euclid, McNeal had been laid off from East Cleveland. Budget constraints were a new fact of public-sector life.

“I have had a couple of interviews,” McNeal says brightly, standing by a community garden she helps to nurture as a volunteer in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood. “It just seems like this is the new wave.”

She’s 58. The youngest of her three sons just earned his engineering degree. But she has no interest in early retirement. Not with so much more to do.

“I don’t mind being a pioneer,” McNeal said. “The boomers pioneered so much. It shouldn’t stop with me.”

CONTRIBUTORS: Plain Dealer Data Analysis Editor Rich Exner, Dan Sewell with the Associated Press, Kim Hone-McMahan of the Akron Beacon Journal and Randy Tucker of the Dayton Daily News.

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