When Ben Sims, 57, showed up earlier this year for a job interview at a company in Richardson, Tex., he noticed the hiring manager — several decades his junior — falter upon spotting him in the lobby.
“Her face actually dropped,” said Mr. Sims, who was dressed in a business suit befitting his 25-year career in human resources at I.B.M.
Later, in her office, after several perfunctory questions, the woman told Mr. Sims she did not believe the job would be “suitable” for him. And barely 10 minutes later, she stood to signal that the interview was over.
“I knew very much then it was an age situation,” said Mr. Sims, who has been looking for work since November 2007, a month before the economic downturn began.
The recession’s onslaught has come as Mr. 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 ages 45 and over 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 H. 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,” Dr. Munnell said.
The unemployment rate in March for workers ages 45 and over 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, Dr. 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 ages 45 and over were unemployed an average of 19 weeks and just under 17 weeks, respectively.
Many out-of-work baby boomers have despaired as they wonder whether to trim their résumés to avoid giving away their decades of work experience, or to dye their hair.
More of them are now choosing to fight back. Age discrimination complaints were up nearly 30 percent in the 2008 fiscal year over the year before, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and that period ended just before the worst of the recession began.
But the vast majority of those complaints involved layoffs. Discrimination in hiring is often 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.
Mr. Sims, in Texas, was so incensed by how he was treated that he tried to call the company’s chief executive but was unable to get through. He never seriously considered filing a formal complaint.
“I know enough about H.R. procedures and H.R. situations,” he said. “It would have never gone anywhere.”
Assessing just how pervasive age discrimination is in the job market is difficult. Certainly, older workers believe that it is rampant — an AARP survey in 2007 of workers ages 45 to 74 found that 60 percent said they had seen or experienced age bias.
Joanna N. Lahey, an economics professor at Texas A&M University, conducted a study published in 2005 in which she sent out 4,000 résumés on behalf of hypothetical job-seeking women ranging in age from 35 to 62 for entry-level jobs at companies in Boston and St. Petersburg, Fla. She changed only the applicant’s high school graduation year, an age indicator. Dr. Lahey found that workers under 50 were more than 40 percent more likely to be called for an interview.
Older workers often accumulate knowledge specific to their companies that helps protect them from layoffs, Dr. Lahey said. But that background is often less useful to other employers.
Older workers must also battle stereotypes about their energy and adaptability, as well as the reality that their health care costs are higher.
The oldest baby boomers have already begun retiring. But with retirement accounts plunging in value, more older workers than ever are trying to stay in the work force. And some unemployed boomers, frustrated after months of fruitless searching, have concluded that their only option is to turn their backs on successful careers and start over at much lower pay.
Jonathan Steinberg, 53, a former marketing executive, has been out of work for more than two years. With a résumé that includes an undergraduate degree from Yale and an M.B.A. from New York University, he had a career on a steady upward progression. His most recent position was senior vice president for communications and marketing at a large organization for the care of the elderly, where he was paid about $170,000 a year.
But after applying for more than 100 jobs and getting few responses, he is now exploring work as a paralegal or a teacher. He believes that his age and experience make for slim odds of landing even a junior-level marketing position at this point.
“I’ve got one to send to college next year, with two more behind her,” Mr. Steinberg said of his children. “I can’t continue to wait for good news on the old job front.”
Ron Higgins, 52, is one of about 100 former employees of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco who filed an age-discrimination complaint against the laboratory after a round of layoffs last May.
The laboratory had promised to lay off workers with less seniority first, he said. But Mr. Higgins, who was a painting supervisor and had worked at the laboratory for more than two decades, believes he was picked because of his age. He pointed out that he cost the company more than many of his younger colleagues, with his salary climbing to about $80,000 a year and full medical benefits due to him in retirement if he continued working until he was 65.
Since being laid off, Mr. Higgins, who has two children in high school, said he had applied for countless jobs and had gotten only one interview, for a janitorial job with a school district. Once again, he said, he believes his age is to blame.
Slideshows on CNBC.com
“They’re saying, ‘Wait a minute, this guy is almost done working,’ ” Mr. Higgins said.
After running through his severance pay and retirement savings, Mr. Higgins and his wife, who runs a struggling printing business from home, have now fallen two months behind on a risky mortgage on a home they bought in 1999. They had already been having trouble keeping up with their house payments before Mr. Higgins was laid off and now have $40,000 in credit card debt. They recently got a notice in the mail that the bank would begin foreclosure proceedings in 30 days.
“Sometimes I just break down and start crying,” he said. “I can’t do anything about my situation.”