Their savings in shambles from the economic downturn, jobless seniors are dusting off their briefcases and trying to head back to work. Many, like Jim Mitchell, a 63-year-old former sales executive, are finding a merciless job market where decades of experience aren't necessarily an asset.
The Long Beach, Calif., resident rises before dawn each day and dresses in business attire to keep himself motivated. He pops in brilliant blue contacts to brighten his eyes and combs back his graying hair to look more youthful.
Not that it matters. He's not getting much face time.
Many recruiters these days want only e-mail applications and refuse to take phone calls. Mitchell is at sea when it comes to using online sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook for networking. He leaves his college graduation date off his resume. But in two years of full-time job hunting, he hasn't had a single callback.
"I don't want to think it's about age, but sometimes you suspect it is," he said. "But 60 is supposed to be the new 40. I just want a fair hearing."
Recession is hitting older workers harder
The recession has not been kind to older workers. With their 401(k)s battered, home values deflated and health care costs rising, many have resigned themselves to staying on the job indefinitely. The trend was well under way before the downturn, as many continued working to pad their savings or to stay active.
Now it's about necessity. Over the past two years, the number of Americans age 55 or older who are still working has climbed by nearly 1.5 million, to just over 26 million in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Those are the lucky ones.
The number of people 55 or older who want a job but can't find one has more than doubled over the same period, to nearly 1.8 million. Many are struggling in a largely digital job-search process that's vastly different from what they have known.
Millions entered the work force straight from high school or college, earning steady promotions and salary increases. Some, like Mitchell, hadn't updated their resumes in years. There was no need.
But with unemployment the highest it has been in more than a quarter of a century — 8.5 percent nationally in March and 10.5 percent in California in February — older job seekers are competing with younger, less expensive rivals.
"You better know that the kids are chasing your job, that they want your $95,000 salary," said Tom Fallon, 62, of Seal Beach, Calif., who has been searching for a sales position in material handling for three months.
America's youngest workers aren't faring well either. In March, the unemployment rate for U.S. workers ages 16 to 24 hit 16.3 percent. But these youths aren't saddled with mortgages and dependents to the same degree as their elders, nor do they have the same medical and retirement concerns.
And although joblessness among older workers is lower than that of the overall labor force, it is growing much faster. In March, 6.2 percent of workers 55 or older were unemployed, up from 3.4 percent in March 2008.
For mature workers who spent years building up stellar credentials and largely defined themselves by their careers, the ego-crushing inactivity of unemployment can be unbearable, said Steven J. Greenberg, founder of Jobs 4.0, a listings site for job seekers over age 40.
"For many, it's a brutal experience — like going through a divorce," he said.
Up until two years ago, Mitchell had worked steadily since joining General Motors Corp. in 1968 as a production foreman straight out of college. He gravitated to sales and marketing, where he figures he has sold more than $150 million worth of consumer products over the years.
In 2006, when his brother became ill, Mitchell took a leave from his job as a national sales manager at a brokerage representing pharmaceutical and health care product suppliers to run the family grocery business in Connecticut. When he returned to Southern California the next year, he said, he found himself squeezed out of the full-time job that had paid more than $100,000 annually.
He's been looking ever since.
Many seniors lack computer familiarity
The daily hunt begins around 7 a.m. in his home office, where Mitchell scans online job leads. He admits he isn't a wiz with computers. Secretaries at his previous posts handled that. Many positions now require Excel and PowerPoint fluency, skills he's trying to master with help from friends.
"It's not that I didn't want to learn — I just never needed it," he said.
Robust and gregarious, he projects the earnest enthusiasm of a born salesman. But gone are the days of cornering an executive in an elevator and pitching yourself in person.
Over the past two years, Mitchell has blown through $80,000 in retirement savings to cover his mortgage and living expenses. He has retreated from his large social network, save for the occasional Friday-morning coffee with friends.
"The hardest time is at night, when the TV goes off and the lights go down and it's quiet and there's nothing else in my head," he said. "I have to think positively then, because otherwise the agony will come out in phone conversations."
Older employees often are perceived as overqualified, overpriced, technologically challenged and inflexible, said Gene Burnard, publisher of the job-listing Web site Workforce50.com.
Some recruiters assume that because older applicants are vying for jobs that pay less than their previous positions, they'll jump ship as soon as the economy improves.
"In this market, it's twice as hard for older job seekers, because however desirable they were at 27, they just aren't as much at 54," said Greenberg of Jobs 4.0. "Recruiters don't give much of an opportunity to go into your life story. They give your resume two seconds."
Amid the recession, senior job-search sites have boomed in popularity. RetirementJobs.com had 500,000 more unique visits in February than it did in August, while traffic to Jobs 4.0 doubled in the same period.
Graying job seekers are flocking to technical and community colleges to improve their skills, experts said. Many are tapping reservoirs of discipline accumulated from decades in the workplace to keep themselves focused.