Judy Jones’ last meal out was at an Olive Garden restaurant for Mother's Day two years ago, before she was laid off from her job at a charter school.
“Burger King would be a big night out for us,” she joked recently. “We ate very meager at first. It was rough.”
Jones, a 62-year-old resident of Phoenix, is like many Americans who are feeling the crunch of the recession. However, she’s also joined many other Americans over the age of 55 for whom retirement is no longer an option.
“I thought I’d retire by 65. I don’t see that happening now; I’m going to work until the day I drop,” she said.
As Baby Boomers near the traditional retirement age of 65, many are choosing to stay in the workforce or coming out of retirement to supplement their income. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the percentage of workers over 55 will jump from 19.5 percent in 2010 to 25.2 percent by 2020.
Tom Rex, associate director of the Center for Competitiveness and Prosperity Research at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, cites a years-long drop in home prices as a major factor that is forcing older Americans back to work.
“For a lot of people home equity is the single-biggest piece of their net worth. For many people that’s the bulk of their savings,” he said. “It doesn’t matter which investments you look at, people are losing money. I know a lot of people who are postponing retirement.”
In addition to decimated savings, many older workers must also deal with rising health-care costs.
“We’re still seeing substantial inflation in health care. It’s just one more big expense,” he said.
After two years of unemployment, Jones, a foster mother of five special needs children who also cares for her disabled husband, caught a break when she obtained a part-time job at Glendale Community College, where she is also taking computer classes. She found the job through the Senior Community Service Employment Program, a Department of Labor program that subsidizes work and education for unemployed Americans who are older than 55 and whose income doesn’t exceed 125 percent of the federal poverty level. Yolanda Locher, the SCSEP director at the Area Agency on Aging in Phoenix, says that the program kept pace with demand until two years ago. Now there are more than 200 people on the waiting list.
“We have a large senior population, and many of them have lost their jobs and homes. It’s not a good time for seniors right now,” she said.
Older workers face additional challenges in the job market. As of June, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that unemployed job-seekers older than 55 had been out of work for 56 weeks, compared to 38 weeks for all other age groups.
In addition, many older workers lack computer skills and don’t know how to apply for jobs in today’s market, said Nancy Hecker, a site coordinator for the AARP Foundation.
“Many of them are just completely overwhelmed, they don’t even know where to start,” she said. “We’ve been seeing a lot of people who are really hurting financially and emotionally. We don’t see that decreasing at all, we see it increasing.”
Jones is no stranger to the challenge of keeping up with technology.
“I’m 62 and starting over. That’s hard. Technology is way ahead of what I’m used to,” she said.
Hecker concentrates on helping workers older than 50 learn basic computer skills, write resumes, find job fairs and prepare for interviews. She has helped more than 750 people in 2½ years and has placed more than 200 of them in jobs.
A handful of organizations in the community offer services ranging from free computer classes to interview coaching. Goodwill and the Maricopa County libraries both offer free computer classes. Community colleges throughout the Valley also offer classes and help out by participating in programs such as SCSEP.
Although Jones and her family are still struggling financially they are steadfast in their effort to recover. Jones, who grew up in a hard-working farm family, planted a garden two years ago to supplement their groceries.
“Anything outside of what you need to survive isn’t there anymore,” she said. “You just learn to survive in a way kids don’t these days.”
After enduring two years of unemployment Jones is ever aware of the possibility that the rug could be pulled out from underneath her at any time.
“What if (a paycheck) is not there? What would we do? That’s the way I think,” she said.
But despite the hardship, she’s found solace in her family.
“My husband and I are stronger now than we ever have been. You need to pull together or things just fall apart,” she said.