Older, wiser and out of work: Finding a job is extra tough for people over 50

Susan Sholin was home ill when her boss called to say: We’re letting you go.

“I was just stunned they’d do it on the phone,” Sholin said. Sales were down, her boss told her, and the company couldn’t afford to keep all three of its salespeople.

“Not a month before, I talked to the owner of the company [after a round of layoffs], and he said, ‘You have nothing to be nervous about,’ ” said Sholin, of Berkeley. “So I felt totally thrown under the bus. Totally surprised. I thought someone would go, but I was shocked it was me.”

Since that phone call Sept. 30, Sholin has found herself among the growing ranks of the unemployed in America.

It is challenging for anyone of any age to be unemployed, but it is particularly difficult for those who, like Sholin, are in their 50s — people who get told repeatedly that they are overqualified and have financial obligations that make it tough to live on unemployment.

On Jan. 5, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that in November unemployment in the Bay Area reached 10.3 percent of the labor force, compared with 6.6 percent a year earlier. Nationally, the unemployment rate in December was 10 percent, or 15.4 million people, according to a Jan. 8 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Job-seekers (from left) Amy Shulman, Norma Kaufman, Steve Shub and Susan Sholin photo/cathleen maclearie

Some 2 million of those people are age 55 and older, and more than half of those have been without a job for 27 or more weeks, according to AARP. That’s well above the overall rate of 40 percent who have been jobless for at least 27 weeks.

The repercussions for this older age group can be severe. Money they once directed to their retirement — a reality closer in time than for their younger counterparts — instead must be used for groceries, mortgage payments and/or a child’s college tuition.

“I will probably not be able to retire at 65, and I’m very concerned how much money I’ll have in retirement,” Sholin said. “I worry about what I’ll do when I get really old, when I’m 75 or 80, God willing I live that long. But that seems far enough away that I don’t get too freaked out. I mostly get freaked out about day-to-day survival. What am I going to do in six months or a year if I’m not working?”

Nancy Grant, 57, knows the feeling. Laid off in 2002, she spent a few years working part time at the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, and didn’t find another full-time job until 2007. Then, in 2009, while working at Sunset magazine, she was laid off in a national round of cuts at Time Warner.

“I’ve put in more than 75 résumés in the past year and have had a total of three interviews since then. It’s very disheartening,” said Grant, of Foster City.

Susan Sholin photos/stacey palevsky

Sunset has hired her back on a contract basis. In addition to the 15 hours a week she works there, she makes and sells jewelry and does freelance Web and graphic design.

“I’m entrepreneurial and have tons of energy, but no place to use it,” Grant said. “I’m working hard but I’m not making it. I’ve got bills that can’t be paid at this point. I’ve got debts that can’t be paid. I’m managing month to month to keep things from being turned off, but that doesn’t mean I’m not behind in my bills. I am.”

Even before Sholin was laid off, business had slowed and her commission had shrunk to a point where she could no longer afford to keep her house in South Berkeley. She sold it in the summer, paid off her first and second mortgages and moved into a rental home.

Since October, Sholin has applied for dozens of jobs that relate to her diverse work experience in law firms, schools, counseling centers and in sales. She has a graduate degree in psychology, a teaching credential and has worked as a paralegal and in sales. She has yet to land an interview.

She’s not sure how much her age is working against her. But others in the same boat are more certain.

“I absolutely think age has been one of the biggest issues I’ve faced,” said Steve Shub, 58, president of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland and unemployed for the past 13 months.

“Organizations can’t legally say anything, but you can feel it when age is the issue. It’s very frustrating.”

Steve Shub

Shub has gone in for interviews where he felt as though he had every qualification, but didn’t get the job offer. In the process, he saw who interviewed before and after him.

“What was different about me? The only significant factor would have been age,” he said.

Age discrimination is both real and perceived, said Shelley Samuels, a nonprofit employment specialist at S.F.-based Jewish Vocational Service.

“Age is perceived as a huge barrier, when in reality, there are people who are older who are getting jobs,” Samuels said. “But there’s a fear among older workers because many more people in that age range have lost or been laid off from a long-term job or a long-term career path.”

Older workers, however, may face greater challenges than their younger counterparts. They are more likely to have the kind of experience and financial obligations that warrant a higher salary than a younger worker.

“Some employers might look at someone who is very highly qualified and think, ‘They’re going to want too much money,’” Samuels said.

Amy Shulman was laid off from the Peninsula Library System in San Mateo after its state funding was cut. With decades of experience in marketing and publishing, the 53-year-old recently interviewed for a job where she wanted a higher salary than the company was willing to pay.

Shulman told them she’d be willing to accept a lower salary as long as the management would consider, after a three-month trial, to evaluate her performance and raise her salary by $5,000, given her experience and background.

Norma Kaufman

“I was told, ‘We have to decide if we want someone who’s decent and will take a low salary or someone who’s seasoned but wants more money,’” Shulman said. “A week later I got an automated e-mail message that I didn’t have the qualifications for the position. That was very discouraging.”

Hiring managers also may be reluctant to hire older workers because their health care insurance premiums are higher. “Obviously no one would say that in the hiring process,” Samuels noted, “because it’s hyper-discriminatory.”

Also a challenge for older workers is the fact that many have spent decades moving up one career path, and may be confused as to how to leverage that experience in another field.

But that experience is also their greatest asset, Samuels said.

“Someone who has worked in a specialization for years is going to know a lot more than somebody who has not been there as long,” she said.

Older workers are also more likely than younger workers to respect “work culture,” Samuels said; they will “bend over backward” to be responsible, to show up on time and to take work seriously.

“Another benefit of hiring people over 50 is that they’re much more interested in stability than younger people,” Samuels added. “They want to stay in a job for five to 10 years. It’s not a hopscotch to something else.”

Shub, for example, is “looking for my last job,” he said. “I’m willing to put in seven years, at least.”

He has worked as the chief information officer at Samuel Merritt College and as the director of technology for the Peralta Community College District.

Since being laid off, he has subsisted on contract and freelance work, and part-time at his wife’s business, Shub Financial Services. His wife works full time, so her salary provides some security.

Ultimately, Shub would like to work as the technology director for an educational or Jewish nonprofit.

“I left my last job thinking I’d look for a job for a month or two — here we are, 13 months later,” he said. “The job-applicant market is so saturated, and companies have so many people to choose from, that it’s made it difficult to get jobs I once thought would have been slam dunks.”

Maintaining one’s optimism in today’s economic climate — that is, a competitive job market flooded with talented people who lost their jobs during the recent recession — is no easy task.

The number of people 55 and older who want to work but are so discouraged that they’ve stopped looking rose in November to 199,000, up from 130,000 in October, according to a recent article in AARP Magazine. (In contrast, only 53,000 fell into that group in December 2007 at the start of the recession, according to AARP.)

Despite these bleak statistics, “I stay optimistic,” Shulman said. “I don’t have any other option. Every once and a while, it does get me down, but I know things can turn on a dime.”

In September, knowing her once full-time hours would probably not return anytime soon, she applied for a job and e-mailed her résumé at 10:30 p.m. The next day, she had a phone interview, and the day after that, a three-hour in-person interview.

“I didn’t get the job, but that showed me it could happen at any time,” Shulman said.

For several months, she’s attended the networking group at Peninsula Temple Beth El, which reminds her she’s not alone in her search. She’s hopeful that her connections and applications will lead to a job in event planning, publishing or Web site maintenance, and she’s especially interested in working for a Jewish organization.

“My two kids were both Diller Teen Fellows, they were very active in NFTY and went to Camps Newman and Swig, and they both now go to Hillel. The best way I can think to say thank you is by working for a Jewish organization,” Shulman said.

She nonetheless applies to entry-level postings “because I need to get something.”

Sholin also is trying to keep her chin up.

“I feel relatively happy,” she said. “Sometimes I ask myself: Why are you happy? … I think part of it is that I’ve worked very hard at keeping myself from going to that low place I don’t want to go.”

When she isn’t job hunting, she reads and watches TV, and frequently invites people over for dinner — an affordable way to maintain her social ties.

And because she loves to cook, she’s tried starting a homemade meal-delivery service, One Less Thing. It hasn’t been lucrative to date, but “anything I earn is better than nothing,” she said.

Shub believes that an upbeat mindset can make or break the job search. “It’s been frustrating, but I have a very positive attitude,” he said.

In addition to the six hours a day he spends job searching, he volunteers, coaches a soccer team and spends plenty of time at Temple Beth Abraham as a member and as its president. He recently started a LinkedIn group for temple members with and without jobs.

“I do the things that really make me feel good. I did them when I worked and I continue to do them without working,” Shub said. “I don’t want to give up my life because of this job search.”

He’s also been accepted into a teacher certification program. If he enrolls, he’ll be 60 by the time he finishes, and then making half of what he made in past jobs.

“Am I willing to do that?” Shub asked. “I don’t know the answer yet … I’m certainly not going to lead the lifestyle I thought I would lead 20 years ago, and I’m OK with that.”

Shub has been working with Norma Kaufman, 49, also an unemployed resident of Oakland, to start networking groups for the East Bay Jewish community.

They met at the networking group at Temple Sinai, which meets weekly on Tuesdays. Both wanted to continue the momentum. One new networking group, Employment Connection, had its first meeting Jan. 7 at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, where Kaufman is a member.

While shmoozing during the High Holy Days — when she knew she’d soon be unemployed (her company was sold and her executive finance position no longer needed) — she realized that many members also were unemployed, or had spouses who’d lost jobs.

“One of the purposes of synagogue is to take care of the community,” Kaufman said.

All job-seekers are invited to participate in the Employment Connection, a collaboration between Berkeley synagogues. The group meets every Thursday from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at rotating locations in the East Bay.

Employment Connection has a LinkedIn group for unemployed and employed members of the East Bay Jewish community, thereby enlarging the network for job seekers.

Kaufman is hopeful that the group will give a boost to Jewish job seekers of all ages — and to herself.

After three months of looking for a position, she’s “succeeded at getting four rejections,” she said. “I’m discouraged, but I’m not weighed down.

“A lot of people are embarrassed,” she added. “But nobody should be embarrassed about being unemployed. People should be looking out for other people. It’s all part of taking care of our community.”

A growing number of synagogues offer networking groups or LinkedIn groups for its members and the community. Contact your local synagogue to find out if it has a networking group or can refer you to one.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.