This job challenge should scare older workers

  • While the current job market is rosy, 56 percent of older workers experience at least one involuntary job loss after age 50.
  • Workers in their 50s, 60s and 70s cite "job loss" among their top financial setbacks, second only to financial market losses.
Roller coaster
John Foxx | Getty Images

For workers in their 50s, the career trajectory to retirement can start to look less like a straight track and more like the lift hill of a roller coaster — just before a series of scream-inducing drops, twists and rolls. Are your finances ready for that ride?

To be sure, the current job market is rosy. Yet 56 percent of older workers experience at least one involuntary job loss after age 50, according to a new joint analysis from nonprofit newsroom ProPublica and Urban Institute, a think tank that focuses on economic and social policy research.

ProPublica and Urban Institute analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal study sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration that tracks older adults. Researchers focused on employer-related separations such as layoffs and business closings, among other reasons, and particularly looked at instances that were "financially consequential" with either long periods of unemployment or sustained, substantial wage loss. (Early exits due to issues including caregiving and poor health — which can also be a financial concern — weren't included.)

Their report is titled "How Secure is Employment at Older Ages?" The answer: Not very.

As researchers point out, older workers often have more difficulty finding jobs due to age discrimination. And when they do find a new job, it's unlikely to pay as much. Only 1 in 10 of those older workers who experience an involuntary job loss ever earn as much per week after, the report found.

No wonder that, in a recent Ameriprise report, workers in their 50s, 60s and 70s cited "job loss" among their top financial setbacks, second only to financial market losses.

At the time of her layoff in 2013, Linda Murray Bullard had been working for the same health insurance company for 26 years.

"I was 53 years old and health-care insurance claims adjudication was all I knew," said Bullard.

"It was the longest relationship I'd had in my life," she adds.

The Chattanooga, Tennessee, resident found another job within a month, at an area hospital. But it came with a $25,000-a-year pay cut. (Her previous employer had also offered her the opportunity to stay, for a $30,000 cut, she said.)

"I realized it was going to be harder to get that salary that I had," said Bullard.

Linda Murray Bullard bounced back from a job loss in 2013 by launching her own business.
Marvin Couch
Linda Murray Bullard bounced back from a job loss in 2013 by launching her own business.

Six years later, she's narrowed her annual income gap to $4,000 shy of her peak career earnings — largely because she launched her own business, LSMB Business Solutions, in that brief window between full-time jobs.

Now, in addition to her full-time hospital job, she helps entrepreneurs launch their own endeavors and develop multiple streams of income. Bullard cites her own story as a warning.

"What would happen if you got a call and your job was gone today?" she asks them. "Would you be OK? Most of us wouldn't."

Despite the risks, financial planners say consumers tend to stubbornly cling to the idea that they'll exit the workforce at an age of their own choosing (if they anticipate being able to retire at all). The prospect of an earlier-than-expected exit due to job loss isn't top of mind.

"People come in and they think, I've progressed, the company is doing well … I don't have anything to worry about,'" said certified financial planner Kevin Reardon, president of Shakespeare Wealth Management in Pewaukee, Wisconsin.

Here's how to anticipate a potential late-career job loss in your financial plan:

Build job skills

"Your income potential is one of your largest assets, if not your largest," said Reardon.

Take advantage of any training opportunities your employer offers, and look for new skills or certifications that could add to your value as an employee. Attend industry conferences and keep up your network.

The payoff for such efforts is twofold: It can make you less of a target when a company decides to cut corners, he said, and also helps make you more immediately marketable if you do have to hunt for a new job.

Bullard said she took a few weeks after her job loss to think about skills she could monetize but, in retrospect, it's something she wished she'd thought about while she was still employed.

"Now is the time to start planning, before you need it," she said.

Get on track with goals

"One thing I always try to preach to our clients is [that] a lot of people don't have the choice of when they're going to retire," said Tracy S. Burke, a CFP and partner with Conrad Siegel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Workers may be counting on steady earnings in their 50s to balance goals such as catching up on retirement contributions and covering a child's college tuition. But it's better to start early on those savings goals, if you can, than to count on future income.

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Burke said he often suggests clients plan as if they'll retire earlier than they'd like to, so that if a job loss interrupts their income, that goal isn't completely derailed. That advance planning has helped one of his clients — a 50-something pharmaceutical sales rep — stay afloat even as his job search stretches past the one-year mark.

"The good thing with these folks is, they were saving and had a decent amount saved for retirement," he said.

Diversify your savings

Having a solid emergency fund is, of course, important. Financial advisors tend to recommend having three to six months' worth of expenses set aside, but people who might find it tougher to find a replacement job may want to set aside even more.

"It's something we always ask about: How would you assess the risk of your job?" said Janet Stanzak, a CFP and the principal of Financial Empowerment in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Stanzak knows a health-care executive who has experienced four unexpected job losses in his 50s, with the most recent job gap lasting 18 months. There's a lot of opportunities in his field in the Twin Cities, she said, "but there's not a lot of opportunity at that level."

Building up a taxable bucket of retirement savings is also important, Stanzak said. In retirement, that gives you tax flexibility. But in a job loss, it also gives you assets to tap before you resort to withdrawing from tax-advantaged accounts — potentially triggering penalties and taxes, and setting you back on retirement goals.

Pay down debt

Even without the threat of job loss, it's a smart idea to work on eliminating debt before you retire. If your employment gets rocky, being debt free helps you stretch savings and reduce monthly expenses, Burke said.

Job loss money moves

Slash your budget. Clients faced with a job loss can get overconfident, reasoning that their experience and skills will help them easily land a new job, said Reardon. But that may not be the case. Recalibrating your budget right away helps stretch your savings so you can job hunt and put off more desperate moves such as downsizing or tapping retirement funds.

"You need to scale back now, so [that] in six months you haven't exhausted that emergency fund," he said.

Reprioritize goals. One of the hardest concessions for parents to make is that a job loss might limit their ability to help their kids with college costs and other expenses, said Linda Rogers, a CFP and owner of Planning Within Reach in Memphis, Tennessee. But it's important to reassess, and have those tough conversations with your kid about how your job loss could affect their college plans.

"We think you should be taking care of yourself first, your retirement first," she said.

Assess timeline and tradeoffs. Take a hard look at your finances to figure out how long your savings can hold out as you job hunt, Stanzak said. That can force your hand on what kind of job you might accept, and whether you'll need to open your search to lower-paid positions, other fields or a different city.

"To what degree do you settle for something less, and how long do you wait?" she said.

Be open to stop-gap income. While you're looking for career work, think about other ways you can bring in money to cover expenses. One of Burke's clients is currently driving for Uber while he job hunts; Stanzak's friend taught classes at a nearby community college and bartended on weekends until a job offer came through. A client of Rogers picked up work — and health insurance — as a Target employee.

"And she loves it," Rogers said. "Be open to other opportunities. They might unexpectedly fill a need."