Every economic crisis comes with a rise in unemployment proportionate to the level of trouble: the more serious the recession the higher the levels of unemployment. Although not usually given to stating the obvious, I though it is important to use this reminder as the starting point for tonight’s post.
Because, as recessions go this one is a really serious one.
And the unemployment data is there to match the seriousness of the situation. While the situation in the US is relatively serious (7.6% unemployment rate), Europe overall announces 10.3% unemployment rate but this is considerably higher in some countries (sorry, guys, we Europeans are competitive and I am really sorry that we had to beat you on this one).
Unemployment is hard at any time, any place. A Finish friend of mine was telling me recently about the situation in Finland in the early 1990s when the country’s economy all but collapsed under the weight of the breakdown of the former Soviet Union. What she vividly remembered were the middle aged man who put on their suits every morning and went to sit in the nearest park: they had to get out but there were no jobs to go to.
Today though the high levels of unemployment is not the only trouble; it is much more concerning that the age profile of the unemployed looks like a slightly skewed U where the highest rates are amongst the 10 to 24 year old and the over 50 year old.
While we hear quite a bit about youth unemployment – well, it is very serious with up to half of the young people in Greece and Spain out of work – and much less about the older unemployed. This is not surprising: too many youths out of work usually means trouble on the streets. Too many older people out of work usually means a lot of human heart-break – if you want to read some of the stories just go to Over Fifty and Out of Work.
At the same time, both the human and social costs of a large proportion of people over 50 being unemployed are enormous. These are mostly associated with the fact that many in this group are considered ‘unemployable’ and become long term unemployed. This coupled with high life expectancy can become a long term problem rivalling, and even over-shadowing, the professed ‘pension crisis’.
There are indirect costs in that many in this age group still have dependents who would not be able to partake in the opportunities for developing skills, competencies and values that their counterparts have access to. Further, given the concentration of unemployment amongst the young and the over 50s, it is possible that attitudes of despair cross the generational divide.
Yet, there is some evidence that the over 50s get laid off work first – they are expensive labour in their peak earning years currently standing at 44-55 – and have great difficulties re-entering the labour force. A survey conducted with human resource managers (the ones who hire and fire) found that employers don’t hire people over 50 because they doubted:
- their ability to learn;
- their physical stamina; and
- how long they will stay.
Is ageism rife? You bet it is! But we’ll have to be clear here – it is not only employers who have doubts about these things. I remember when I started swimming lessons at 39, a ‘friend’ telling me that I shouldn’t because ‘we can’t learn after 30’. What complete and utter tosh! Now, I am often asked whether I teach swimming. Prejudice is all around us; not only confined to the HR departments of large companies.
You know that I like to be prepared just in case ‘the sh*t hits the fan’. This got me thinking, what are the options for re-entering the labour force for people in their 50s and 60s who are currently unemployed. This is what I came up with.
Option 1: the ‘Million Dollar Baby’ approach
Do you remember the movie Million Dollar Baby? Well, the main character’s approach to boxing was very direct and un-sophisticated – she just ‘knocked them down in the first round’.
If one is fifty and unemployed this strategy is part of the first option for getting back into work, but I am not going to say that this would necessarily be successful. It includes:
- Looking for traditional employment.
- Convincing employers that you can still learn by doing different things (while looking for a job) and/or acquiring new competencies (by attending courses and demonstrating ability).
- Behaving and looking younger and more dynamic. Ladies, cut your hair short, get out the hair dye bottles and the ‘anti-aging’ stuff (well, it doesn’t help but it sure will make you feel better): frump is our, style is in. Gents, get your-self groomed and dress in the fashion of today; and don’t forget to run up steps and not make ‘old’ noises.
- Tell the world how great you are by subscribing to data-bases, starting a web-site and any other means in the tool box.
- Network tirelessly and with purpose. Don’t be ashamed to tell your contacts that ‘you are on the market’; you never know.
And remember that for some this is not going to work!
Option 2: become a ‘work nomad’
Most of us focus on ‘employment’, or jobs, most of the time and structure our lives accordingly. But employment is about a contract between us and an employer; what we do is work.
In other words, work is at the core of all this; work is the true measure of the value we contribute to organisations, society at large and people’s lives. One important implication is that we don’t need to be employed to contribute value and generate the income we need to survive.
We just need to develop the ability to spot work opportunities and chase those continuously.
I believe that although this option won’t come naturally for the over 50s this is the more promising one. However, it needs flexibility, courage, continuous learning and fast action. In fact, this option is already being enacted and 40% of the American workforce is expected to be free-lancers by 2010.
We, the over 50s, seem to have been born during the wrong time of a Kondratiev wave: we were unemployed when we were starting out in the 1980s and we are losing our jobs again now, shortly before starting to wind down. The first time around we followed tradition, waited patiently and got jobs with prospects and benefits.
This time we have the opportunity to make a choice, not to compromise.
What would you choose?