Times toughest on youngest, oldest workers

The Associated PressSeptember 13, 2009 

— Marcus Wells and Shirley Walker view their economic prospects from opposite ends of the age spectrum.

Wells, 25, was initially optimistic about his prospects for finding a new job after he was laid off as a systems analyst in January in San Jose, Calif. Now, unemployment has begun to wear on the him, and he thinks his age has factored into his frustration.

"More experienced people are getting hired, and they're downgrading their skills to get the job," Wells said. "I feel like I'm competing with older workers, not college graduates. It wears on your confidence."

Walker, 58, lost her job running a nonprofit which helped minority women in business in Orlando, and hasn't had any luck finding new work in the three months since.

"What they tell us is that they're looking for more mature and experienced workers, but they want us to work for less, or what they could pay younger people to do," she said recently outside an Orlando job fair. "Maybe younger people would be willing or able to accept lesser pay."

Would-be retirees have watched their savings dwindle and health care costs soar, while workers recently out of school and burdened by debt try to advance in careers that no longer have room for them.

The Economic Stress Index

The results show up on the map: Places with high concentrations of people in their late 20s or nearing what they thought would be their retirement age are feeling the recession the hardest, as measured by The Associated Press Economic Stress Index. The index assigns each county a score from 1 to 100, with higher numbers reflecting greater stress based on unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcies.

California's Santa Clara County, where Wells lives, registered 14.41 on the stress index in July, the most recent month for which figures are available, while Walker's Orange County, Fla., came in at 15.76. The average is 10.54.

The groups associated with the highest stress scores in each U.S. county are men and women 25 to 29, and women older than 55. That doesn't necessarily mean that a high percentage of people in those groups causes a county's economic health to worsen, though the two appear to go hand in hand.

Experts said a variety of factors may be at play.

Young adults are more at risk of losing their jobs and homes in a recession, while people later in life are more likely to declare bankruptcy to protect their assets, said Tay McNamara, director of research at the Center on Aging and Work at Boston College.

"Last hired, first fired," McNamara said. "Generally, that is very true."

Chanel Moore, 25, of Orlando knows how that goes. She was laid off last year from a retail job and finds herself competing with older workers in job searches.

"I'm young, trying to get on my feet," Moore said, "and then you have people older than me who are already on their feet looking for jobs with more experience than me."

Jobless rate jumps

Workers in the 25-to-34 age group have seen the most dramatic rise in unemployment during the past year, compared with other age groups. Their unemployment rate went from 5.7 percent in July 2008 to 10 percent in July 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Compounding the pain for some young workers can be big bills from their careers as students. The average undergraduate finishes college with $17,700 in debt at four-year public schools and $22,375 in debt at four-year private schools. Also, student loan provider Sallie Mae reported this year that seniors graduated with an average credit card debt of more than $4,100 in 2008 -- up from $2,900 four years earlier.

If there is a bright side for this age group, it's that they are less likely than older workers to have families to feed or mortgages to pay.

"They're a pretty flexible group," said Tom Smith, a labor economist at Emory University. "They have fewer ties to a community and can travel or relocate."

Though younger people may be more likely to be laid off, older workers are less likely to recover from a layoff, experts said. Part of the reason stems from the myths surrounding older workers -- that they're tough to train, more expensive and not comfortable with new technology, said Joseph Quinn, a professor of economics at Boston College.

"Once they do get laid off, they're really hosed," Quinn said.

Unemployment for older workers has increased in this recession more than in past recessions, and unemployment for adults older than 65 is at an all-time high: 7 percent in July. That is up from 3.3 percent at the start of the recession in December 2007, but still below the national unemployment rate of 9.7 percent in August. The previous high was 6.6 percent in February 1977.

The rise in unemployment for older workers is partly the result of a mobile work force that hasn't stayed with a single employer for long periods as in the past, said Richard Johnson, a senior fellow at The Urban Institute in Washington.

"What seemed to protect older workers in the past is that they had a lot of seniority," Johnson said. "Now there is much more churning going on with these older workers. Even though they're older and experienced, they haven't been with the employer for very long."

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