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The energy is palpable at a Saturday morning session of the Madison Area Job Transition Program. People hurrying in from the parking lot at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church on the city’s southwest side flash warm smiles of greeting, but a glance around the room shows that the group means business.

Founder Bob Shimmel welcomes newcomers and directs them to the job-search resources: a first-timer table peppered with helpers who lend moral support; stations to update resumes, learn about online networking or consult an attorney; and enough research and inspirational handouts to fill a briefcase.

“We’re serious,” says the recently retired Shimmel.

The goal is a full-time job, and the strategy is commitment. Those who embrace the job search as a full-time job have a good chance of success, he says. “Those who don’t embrace the search won’t be as successful.” Shimmel boasts of the group’s success rate: 27 participants have clinched a job so far this year.

The free group is open to everyone, but a glance around the room tells you that many participants are over age 50, and the frequent wry quips about being “over 29” say they are feeling their age on the unemployment line.

Shimmel’s counsel? Shrug it off. Put down the anger, ignore the insecurities. Start making connections and network to find the 70 percent of jobs that are not advertised. Identify your transferable skills. Polish your credentials. Forget about the job you used to have and the pay you used to get. They don’t exist anymore.

The quest for re-employment is a journey of transition, Shimmel says. “Eighty percent of you who travel it will end up in a better place.”

But that road is often harder for those over 50 or so, according to both statistics and anecdotal evidence. Like others who suddenly find themselves unemployed, older workers struggle with their sense of identity, but they may face discrimination because of their age. Many will never command the pay or benefits they did before the economy took the most precipitous dive since the Great Depression of the 1930s, experts say. They will work longer than their fathers and mothers did and may never enjoy the retirement their parents had. But they may find that the ordeal offers an opportunity to test their mettle and reconsider what they value in life.

What the numbers say is that workers between the ages of 55 and 64 were on unemployment rolls an average of 44.6 weeks as of October, according to Assistant Secretary of Labor William E. Spriggs, who spoke before a special session of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It was called late last year to examine the impact of the economic recession on older workers. According to Spriggs, older workers remained unemployed an average of almost 11 weeks longer than workers age 25 to 34 years, and 17 weeks longer than those 20 to 24.

As they have been displaced from their jobs, workers 55 and older in Wisconsin who are receiving unemployment compensation grew more than 19 percent between 2006 and 2010, from 17 percent of those getting benefits to 20.3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“This recession is the first time we’re getting huge numbers of 50-year-olds out of work and looking for jobs,” says attorney Victor Forberger, who leads the University of Wisconsin Law School Unemployment Appeals Clinic and volunteers as a consultant to the Job Transition Program.

As unemployment rates have begun to inch down, prognosticators forecast recovery. But you wouldn’t know it from what older workers report, says Forberger. “If the economy were turning around, companies would be looking for these older workers to get up to speed quickly,” he says.

Media reports of recovery infuriate one discouraged worker in his mid-50s who has been searching for work for months.

“There’s people behind those percentage points,” says the former insurance salesman, who was fired last fall after the demands of seeing his wife through a life-threatening health crisis, on top of assisting his aging parents, meant that he could not meet the quotas of his employment contract. “There are people who are not even included in the numbers because they’ve given up or their benefits ran out. It’s scary. It’s frustrating when you are in this position and all you hear is the numbers. Walk in our shoes for a while.”

•    •    •    •

For the community of older workers in the job market who meet at workshops, swap stories at job fairs, or bolster each other’s spirits at support groups, frustration is the zeitgeist. Some of them have not been in the job market for decades, and many report spending hours each day on Internet job sites and sending out hundreds of resumes that simply disappear into the ether.

“I see frustration with a capital F,” says career counselor Sybil Pressprich, who moderates the Job Search Support Group of the UW-Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies. More of the group’s participants are 50 and older than in the past, she says.

The Dane County Job Center of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, the facility on Aberg Avenue in Madison that offers training and job search assistance for job seekers, also found that a new networking group was especially popular with older workers.

Those were the workers, too, who were attracted to a support group launched this year at the Center for Adult Learning of Madison College. “I’m hearing more and more about older workers having problems getting a job, workers as young as 45,” says counselor Al Studesville. Employers are missing out, he says, because older workers are more dependable, need less supervision and are more creative problem solvers.

All that may be, but the displaced workers who gravitate to Studesville’s support group report finding themselves on alien terrain. Barbara Sullivan worked for nearly 40 years in clerical positions at two prominent Madison companies before a layoff last year from a job she thought she’d retire from. Job hunting as she knew it meant putting out the word with friends and acquaintances to get an interview that landed a job. But when she checked her list of references after being laid off, she realized most were retired or deceased. She can’t get an interview these days, she says.

“Employers are so hung up on degrees,” she muses. “I have experience. Let me show you.”

Participants in Studesville’s group report being confronted with employment tests on computer software they’ve never seen before. “We learned on the job, but companies don’t want to spend money to train you today,” says Sullivan.

•    •    •    •

Many of those looking for work in middle age embark on a humbling regimen: dyeing hair to hide the gray, dieting to smooth paunches and scrubbing decades-old dates from resumes. The belief that the deck is stacked against them because of their age is pervasive among older job seekers, despite the fact that federal and state laws prohibit private and public employers from discriminating in hiring against workers age 40 and older, unless advanced age really means someone can’t do a particular job.

In a paper published in January looking at age and re-employment, researchers at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute point to reasons employers cite for reluctance to hire older workers: concerns about recouping training costs before a new hire retires, a belief that older workers are unwilling to learn new things, and fear that their health care and pension costs will be more expensive.

That’s not the sort of thing business leaders say publicly, however, and many don’t believe it anyway.

Jennifer Alexander, president of Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, says experienced workers still are great hires. “It’s not a product of age, it’s the result of experience, knowledge and wisdom.”

And if the years of experience include little use of the digital technology with which decades-younger competitors for the job are intimately familiar?

“Every job requires a unique set of skills and each age brings different strengths. Clearly, the younger worker is a native to technology and people my age are immigrants. But I think it’s wrong to count out any group from a particular skill,” Alexander says.

Some local older job seekers speculate that employers’ reluctance to hire them may be unconscious. “I just have a sense that despite the best intentions, there is an assumption that older workers are slower, that they won’t be able to pick up technology, that sort of thing,” says one mid-50s former office manager.

Older job seekers are concerned employers are rejecting them out of hand, but “sometimes the fear is not based on anything tangible,” says UW career counselor Pressprich.

One job seeker in her 50s describes the expression that flits across an interviewer’s face when you enter the room and “sinks your heart.”

“I’ve been in interviews where it so clear that they don’t want to hire old people,” says a man in his 60s whose job as a computer systems manager ended in late 2008. He can’t shake the memory of the interviews where he knew as soon as a remark left his lips that it was wrong. “I’d see the energy in the room drop, and say to myself that was an ‘old person’ thing to say.”

More older workers are seeing their rejection in the job market as age discrimination. Complaints of age discrimination against Wisconsin employers rose from 17.3 percent of all employment discrimination claims in 2005 to 21.2 percent of claims in the 2010 fiscal year, according to statistics from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Madison attorney Marilyn Townsend has no doubt that older workers are discriminated against; just the fact that the city, state and federal governments prohibit it indicates it’s a problem. Proving it is another matter.

It is hard enough to prove that age discrimination was involved in terminations or layoffs, she says; proving discrimination in hiring is even harder.

“Particularly if you were one of hundreds of applicants, how do you prove age was an issue?” she asks. And depending on where the case is heard, workers may have to prove that age was the sole reason they were not hired and that qualifications were not an issue, she says. “Unless someone says ‘we don’t want wrinkled faces,’ it’s hard to prove.”

With the slim chances of success and high emotional toll of litigation, a discrimination lawsuit may not be worth it. Besides, says one older worker, a lawsuit would scare off other prospective employers. “That’s why I think instances of age discrimination don’t usually bubble up.”

Don Larson, who spent two years looking for re-employment in his field of information technology management, counsels older job seekers not to waste time trying to win over employers who don’t appreciate them. “Companies with no tolerance for what seasoned veterans can bring to the table — it’s casting pearls before swine. Find a company that values what you have to offer,” he says.

From his observation as a participant and volunteer for the Job Transition Program, he says it may not be age, but bitterness over losing their job that poisons the water for older workers. “What they don’t realize is that they carry that anger with them into interviews.”

More productive, he says, is to take a look at yourself and identify where skills need to be obtained or refreshed. “Look at yourself as a work in progress. You can’t do that when you’re angry.”

•    •    •    •

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The implications of having older people out of work for long stretches are an increasing focus for public policy analysts. Delaying retirement has been seen as the surest route to financial security in old age, because it allows workers to boost savings and Social Security payments and to shrink the number of years retirement savings must fund, Urban Institute researchers say. But that strategy depends on older workers being able to find employment. And their current difficulty in doing so calls into question the prescription of raising the retirement age to preserve Social Security.

Tim Smeeding, director of UW-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty, does believe that the solution for the country’s overall fiscal problems is to raise the retirement age, but he says, too, that doing so would place a greater burden on manual laborers who may not be physically able to stay on the jobs they’ve been trained to do and who may not have the kinds of skills desired by employers in the new economy. “These guys will find something, but if it is something as good as the jobs they had, I’d be very surprised,” Smeeding says. “It’s going to be tough. They’re just going to have to realize they won’t have a retirement like the older guys they worked with.”

Charlie Kunce is seeing that struggle firsthand. He has spent his work life as a painter and drywall finisher, but hasn’t been able to find a job for a year and a half, as the recession dried up work in the construction industry.

Kunce, 50, has maxed out his unemployment benefits, and fallen far enough behind in his rent that he may face eviction. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen,” he says. Kunce has done a few side jobs in the time he’s been off, but he hasn’t been able to find much. He recently applied for food stamps, although his eligibility interview is not until mid-May, and he’s not sure how he’ll make do until then. “It’s funny,” he says. “I was a member of Rotary Club and volunteered to pass out food at the local food pantry, and here I am now.” But he isn’t sure he can swallow his pride and use a food pantry, he says. “It’s demoralizing.”

Kunce suspects his age may be one reason he’s not getting responses from the resumes he has sent out to companies advertising for help. “When people see 50, they think you’re ready to retire. But I’m in better shape than most 20-year-olds.”

Workers from the construction industry are feeling the pain at the top of the earning scale, too. A 59-year-old career construction project manager who is marking two years out of work since a layoff says he’s beginning to figure he would be happy with a job in his field that paid half of the six-figure compensation to which he had become accustomed. He has not yet had to consider an hourly low-wage job of the type he knows other long-unemployed workers have taken. “I might decide I like it too much,” he jokes of the kind of job that ends with the shift.

In fact, many of the older workers who turn to local job-search groups for support and assistance are not in financial straits. Among a dozen interviewed for this story, many report that they have spouses in well-paying jobs, substantial retirement nest eggs, or — for those who decided to take the plunge and begin collecting — Social Security benefits. They have taken temporary jobs, developed work as their own bosses, or immersed themselves in volunteer work.

But the value of working, and the cost of not being able to find a job, go far beyond paying the bills.

Marjorie Matthews has had a long career as a social worker, and at 60 is discouraged to find herself in the position of always being poised to market herself during a chance encounter with someone with a line on a job or training to reinvent herself without assurance of a job at the end of it. “You’d think you’d have some insurance when you get an education and credentials, you’d think that would smooth the path,” she says.

The experience of being out of work for six months, and the people she has met, she says, have given her perspective on her lifestyle and spending and how much tougher some people have it. Still, she feels a need to contribute beyond the volunteer work she is doing, and despite her husband’s continued earnings, is nagged by uncertainty about what retirement now will look like.

“I never thought I’d be in this scary place,” she says.

Lori Bose, 54, has been looking for work for more than two years since a layoff of limited-term workers at the University of Wisconsin Business School in 2009.

Her husband is working, but the couple needs a second income and she needs to work for her own sense of purpose, she says. “After 50 it became more important for me to do work that’s meaningful to me. It seems more imperative. There isn’t as much time. I want this period of my life to be reflective of who I really am.”

One displaced worker said work as a source of identity is especially important for men. “Our work is who we are,” he says. “You go to a cocktail party, people ask you what you do.” Crafting a new identity based on being the “house spouse” or as a volunteer is difficult, he says.

•    •    •    •

Is unemployment more wrenching for older workers in any measurable way? The answer may emerge from a major national study now under way to gauge the effect of the economic recession on the mental and physical health of people at each stage of life, says Carol Ryff, director of the Institute on Aging at UW-Madison. Right now, nobody knows for sure.

Because people over 50 who find themselves out of work are losing key years in building resources for retirement, the stress of unemployment may be greater, Ryff conjectures. But stress is not necessarily destructive. “There are huge individual differences in how people respond. Some people who face adversity get in touch with their strengths, seek support and cope well. They may even get their priorities realigned in ways that seem more sensible and healthy to them.”

Adversity is one way that people become more clear on what matters, and what it means to be productive without a job. “There are opportunities everywhere to be engaged in the world,” Ryff says.

Some local older job seekers say they’ve discovered strength in the crucible of unemployment.

“I’ve discovered a deep well of inner strength through all this, in the ability to persevere and keep putting out applications,” reflects Bose. “Even if don’t want to, I do it.”

Jay Kraemer, a customer service manager who found himself out of work at 57, says he had only a twinge of self-doubt during the 27 months he looked for full-time employment. He found his confidence shaken when he didn’t get a job after an interview, but turned to a friend who told him he was overqualified. “That helped me realize I am who I am,” he says.

Today he’s happy in a new job and volunteering at the Job Transition Program to teach others about online networking. “My passion is to help people grow and succeed,” he says.