As an auditor, Ms. Reid loved figuring out the kinks in a manufacturing or parts delivery process. But after more than 20 years of commuting across Puget Sound to Boeing, Ms. Reid was exhausted when she was let go from her $80,000-a-year job.
Stunned and depressed, she sent out résumés, but figured she had a little time to recover. So she took vacations to Turkey and Thailand with her husband, who is a home repairman. She sought chiropractic treatments for a neck injury and helped nurse a priest dying of cancer.
Most of her days now are spent in front of a laptop, holed up in a lighthouse garret atop the house that her husband, Denny Mielock, built in the 1990s on a breathtaking piece of property overlooking the sound.
As she browses the job listings that clog her e-mail in-box, she refuses to give in to her fears. “If I let myself think like that all the time,” she said, “I could not even bear getting out of bed in the morning.”
With her husband’s home repair business pummeled by the housing downturn, the bills are mounting. Although the couple do not have a mortgage on their 3,000-square-foot house, they pay close to $7,000 a year in property taxes. The roof is leaking. Their utility bills can be $300 a month in the winter, even though they often keep the thermostat turned down to 50 degrees.
They could try to sell their home, but given the depressed housing market, they are reluctant.
“We are circling the drain here, and I am bailing like hell,” said Ms. Reid, emitting an incongruous cackle, as if laughter is the only response to her plight. “But the boat is still sinking.”
It is not just the finances that have destabilized her life.
Her husband worries that she isolates herself and that she does not socialize enough. “We’ve both been hard workers our whole lives,” said Mr. Mielock, 59. Ms. Reid sometimes rose just after 3 a.m. to make the hourlong commute to Boeing’s data center in Bellevue and attended night school to earn a master’s in management information systems.
“A job is more than a job, you know,” Mr. Mielock said. “It’s where you fit in society.”
Here in the greater Seattle area, a fifth of those claiming extended unemployment benefits are 55 and older.
To help seniors polish their job-seeking skills, WorkSource, a local consortium of government and nonprofit groups, recently began offering seminars. On a recent morning, 14 people gathered in a windowless conference room at a local community college to get tips on how to age-proof their résumés and deflect questions about being overqualified.
Motivational posters hung on one wall, bearing slogans like “Failure is the path of least persistence.”
Using PowerPoint slides, Liz Howland, the chipper but no-nonsense session leader, projected some common myths about older job-seekers on a screen: “Older workers are less capable of evaluating information, making decisions and problem-solving” or “Older workers are rigid and inflexible and have trouble adapting to change.”
Ms. Howland, 61, ticked off the reasons those statements were inaccurate. But a clear undercurrent of anxiety ran through the room. “Is it really true that if you have the energy and the passion that they will overlook the age factor?” asked a 61-year-old man who had been laid off from a furniture maker last October.
Gallows humor reigned. As Ms. Howland — who suggested that applicants remove any dates older than 15 years from their résumé — advised the group on how to finesse interview questions like “When did you have the job that helped you develop that skill?” one out-of-work journalist deadpanned: “How about ‘during the 20th century?’ ”
During a break, Anne Richard, who declined to give her age, confessed she was afraid she would not be able to work again after losing her contract as a house director at a University of Washington sorority in June. Although she had 20 years of experience as an office clerk in Chattanooga, Tenn., she feared her technology skills had fallen behind.
“I don’t feel like I can compete with kids who have been on computers all their lives,” said Ms. Richard, who was sleeping on the couch of a couple she had met at church and contemplating imminent homelessness.
Older people who lose their jobs take longer to find work. In August, the average time unemployed for those 55 and older was slightly more than 39 weeks, according to the Labor Department, the longest of any age group. That is much worse than in August 1983, also after a deep recession, when someone unemployed in that age group spent an average of 27.5 weeks finding work.
At this year’s pace of an average of 82,000 new jobs a month, it will take at least eight more years to create the 8 million positions lost during the recession. And that does not even allow for population growth.