Joseph Gonzales moved to North Carolina in October 2008 after the mortgage lending company where he worked in Orlando, Fla., closed.
Soon after his move, he began looking for work in Charlotte because of its reputation as a banking hub. But he has found himself in an unexpected position — unemployed, and competing with people half his age for jobs. Gonzales was one of the nearly 2 million workers older than 55 who were unemployed in June.
It has been a financial burden, a mental struggle and sometimes even a physical fight for the 61-year-old.
“Certainly (unemployment) affects all aspects of your life,” Gonzales said. “It affects your vision of yourself, it affects your outlook on life, it affects your motivation at times. You start questioning ‘Had I done this, had I done that.’ ”
Though the national unemployment rate has declined since its peak in October 2009, one group has remained particularly vulnerable – America’s older generation of workers.
The unemployment rate for people older than 55 has nearly doubled since the recession began in December 2007. Though it remains below the national average, at 6.2 percent in June, the rate has increased faster than for any other age group since the start of the recession, according to a June AARP study.
These statistics can hit even harder in North Carolina, where the unemployment rate remains well above the national average, at 9.6 percent in July. Moreover, 17.6 percent of the North Carolina population reports being underemployed – a term that refers to people who are working in a job for which they are overqualified, or who are working fewer hours than they would like.
In previous hiring slumps, older workers who lost their jobs might have elected to retire rather than spend their days scouring online job sites and sending out dozens of resumes. But with lofty mortgages, bank loans and medical bills on their plates, many are left with no choice but to halt retirement plans and return to the ranks of the job seekers – a place many haven’t been in decades.
‘Don’t want to retire’
After his layoff, Gonzales first settled in Asheville because of its Charles George VA Medical Center. Gonzales is a Marine and Army veteran.
But four years and a move to Charlotte later, Gonzales is still out of work – despite his 15 years of experience in mortgage lending. And he’s worried his age is to blame.
“The last four years have been major in that I’d never felt that I was getting to the point of becoming old,” he said. “It was like a 2-by-4 that hit me across the back of the head. I’m interviewing with people half my age.”
A survey released in July by AARP found that age discrimination is a growing problem among older workers. The report found that 77 percent of workers over 50 think age discrimination would be an obstacle if they were job hunting. Thirty-four percent said they’ve experienced age discrimination firsthand.
After arriving in Asheville, Gonzales was unemployed for almost two years, and he even considered moving back to Florida to be near his family and former life. But in June 2010, he was hired by Wells Fargo as a phone banker.
A year later, he was let go and has been unemployed ever since. Gonzales has owned businesses, worked for mortgage brokers, insurance companies, and loss mitigation businesses throughout his career.
But none of this experience – or his status as a veteran – has helped him find permanent work.
“I probably had 20 more years experience than the guy I interviewed with and I still didn’t get the job,” he said, of one mortgage lending job he interviewed for in the Charlotte area.
After years without a steady income, the financial burden of unemployment has forced Gonzales to make some tough choices. He has postponed plans for his wedding, cut back on spending and even considered taking on part-time construction work. But he’s not ready to give up yet.
“I don’t want to retire,” he said. “I want to feel productive. I want to feel like I’m important, feel like I’m not in the grave yet.”
Longer unemployment periods
Jeff Campbell, 60, was laid off from his corporate communications job at a Charlotte shipping company last August when his department was eliminated. With 15 years of experience in communications, he was initially optimistic when he began applying for jobs.
“Certainly for the older workers more so, you bring a lot of weight to the position, offer a lot,” he said. “You have confidence going in.”
But a year and countless applications later, he is still unemployed.
“My wife accuses me, good naturedly, of being the eternal optimist,” he said. “But it has taken me much longer than I thought it would.”
Campbell and his wife moved to Charlotte in 1993 after they were both laid off in Massachusetts. Back then, he said he was able to find a job in a few months.
“Those were real boom years here,” he said. “It’s an entirely different world today here.”
Steve Hahn with AARP of North Carolina, said older workers now face longer periods of unemployment – on average about 56 weeks, compared to about 35 weeks for younger workers.
Though older workers usually come with more experience, Hahn said they also often require higher pay and higher-level jobs, leading some employers to opt for younger candidates.
These longer periods of unemployment can have lasting effects on older workers who should be earning the highest wages of their career. Mortgages, loans and health care costs pile up, pushing back plans for retirement even further and leaving many depressed and discouraged.
About three months into Campbell’s job search, he began to reluctantly look for work outside of Charlotte.
“I’ve applied for jobs in Australia, Europe, all over the U.S.,” he said. “That kind of hit me three to four months in – I might have to move outside of Charlotte.”
Campbell said he has avoided the discouragement that cripples many older job seekers by remaining involved in networking events, LinkedIn and job-seeker groups. He recently became president of the Charlotte chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators. But some days, he still finds his position difficult.
“An older worker brings a great deal of experience, a whole lot of positive attributes,” he said. “But that said, being told you’re ‘too senior’ still does make you think twice.”
For many older workers, not only has the job market changed since they last searched for employment, so has the way job seekers sell themselves to potential employers. Networking tools like LinkedIn and personal resume websites, for example, have become crucial.
Employers are increasingly turning to online applications, and many job posting boards have also moved online. Though convenient for some, it can also be a hurdle for older workers who may be less current with technology.
“A lot of the older workers haven’t had to look for a job in quite a while, and how people looked for a job has changed a lot ,” said Steve Partridge, president and CEO of Charlotte Works. “It’s a lot more proactive, a lot more social media now.”
Charlotte resident Suzie Borgman, 54, has been looking for a job in executive administration for the past few months now. She said, like many job seekers, she didn’t realize the importance of having an online presence until she attended a job hunter support group at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Borgman decided to join Linked-In recently. She said she has found the personal networking site, which allows members to make “connections” with friends, people in their career field and potential employers, helpful so far. Recruiters often look at potential candidates on LinkedIn and social media sites before calling them in for an interview.
“We’ve come a long way,” Borgman said. “It used to be all about first impressions.”
Audrey Whitley was 52 years old when she lost her marketing job at a Charlotte publishing house in May 2010.
“I always had a job waiting on me. The whole situation was a bit of a shock,” she said. “I never felt immune to it, but I think that people tend to not really believe it’s going to be them.”
But she soon realized the importance of staying busy while she looked for work.
During her more than a year of unemployment – lasting from May 2010 to September 2011 – Whitley held a few temporary and part-time jobs. She also networked, volunteered and attended conferences, where she learned to tailor her resume for the position she was applying for.
“I was confident I could sell myself, but it’s very hard to do when you get knocked out for not having a key word,” she said. “I probably had 20 versions of my resume.”
But her goal was always to return to full-time employment in marketing.
“I thought by December I’d have some serious leads,” she said. “My goal was to just find full-time employment as quickly as possible. I applied for things I would have not applied for in other circumstances.”
In June, nearly 1.3 million older workers were working part time because they had no choice, about 77,000 more than the month before, according to a study by AARP.
The proportion of older people working part time for economic reasons in June was nearly double what it was at the start of the recession, when only 2.4 percent of older workers were working part-time because they could not find full-time work.
Whitley was hired in September 2011 by a Charlotte financial firm, where she works today.