When Ben Sims, 57, showed up earlier this year for a job interview at a company in Richardson, Texas, he noticed the hiring manager – several decades his junior – falter upon spotting him in the lobby.
Later in her office, after several perfunctory questions, the woman told Sims – who had a 25-year career in human resources at IBM – that she did not believe the job would be "suitable" for him.
"I knew very much then it was an age situation," said Sims, who has been looking for work since November 2007, a month before the economic downturn began.
The recession’s onslaught has come as Sims and many others belonging to the baby boom generation remain years from retirement. But unemployed baby boomers, many of whom believed they were still in the prime of their careers, are confronting the grim reality that they face some of the steepest odds of any job-seekers in this dismal market.
Workers 45 and older form a disproportionate share of the hard-luck recession category, the long-term unemployed – those who have been out of work for six months or longer, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
On average, laid-off workers in this age group were out of work 22.2 weeks in 2008, compared with 16.2 weeks for younger workers. Even when they finally land jobs, they typically experience a much steeper drop in earnings than their younger counterparts.
Older workers do hold some advantages, though. Many have avoided layoffs in this recession, and government statistics show that people 45 and older currently have a lower unemployment rate than younger workers.
Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, said companies were often reluctant to lose the experience of older workers, many of whom also have protections that often come with age and seniority.
Recent data, however, have shown that the advantage is deteriorating. "If you are old and have a job, you are less likely – albeit less less likely than in the old days – to be fired," Munnell said.
The unemployment rate in March for workers 45 and older was 6.4 percent, the highest since at least 1948, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking unemployment on a monthly basis.
But once older workers lose their jobs, Munnell said, "then it’s horrible." They have a much harder time finding work again than younger job-seekers do, and statistics appear to show that it is harder for them in this recession than in previous ones. During downturns in 1982 and 2001, workers 45 and older were unemployed an average of 19 weeks and just under 17 weeks, respectively.
Older workers must also battle stereotypes about their energy and adaptability, as well as the reality that their health care costs are higher.
Discrimination in hiring is almost impossible to prove. "Especially in this day and age, when you apply online, you’re not even told why you can’t get past the first screening," said Laurie McCann, a senior lawyer with the AARP Litigation Foundation.