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Older Workers Need to Eat Too

A year ago, I saw a special on PBS Newshour about a woman who was by all outside appearances very successful. She dressed nicely, had been a very successful, and living in an upper middleclass Washington DC condo.

The subject of the story was Elizabeth White, a black ex-executive and entrepreneur. She had just self-published an intriguing book, which I promptly ordered following the show, that caused me to focus a lot of my professional efforts on helping older workers. In her book “Fifty-Five, Unemployed and Faking Normal” Ms. White is incredibly transparent in her account of the crash of her booming career and comfortable lifestyle that left her broke, and hiding the truth of her income, or lack thereof, from her friends – that is until she realized that others were in the same shoes.

Every day, my staff and I see adults over the age of 50 struggle to find jobs. In many cases they’ve already given up and they show up at one of our GoodAssist Offices (a free benefit assistance program) looking for help applying for food stamps or TANF benefits, or a list of local food pantries. Fortunately, we are able to offer them training and educational opportunities, as well, to help them get back in the game.

According to a May 2017 online publication “Career Outlook” by Mitra Toossi and Elka Torpey, on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) website, “about 40 percent of people ages 55 and older were working or actively looking for work in 2014. That number, known as a labor force participation rate, is expected to increase fastest for the oldest segments of the population—most notably, people ages 65 to 74 and 75 and older—through 2024. In contrast, participation rates for most other age groups in the labor force aren’t projected to change much over the 2014–24 decade.”

Ms. White shone a light on the age discrimination that she faced as she tried to get back into the workplace after her business failed.

I had already been researching the challenges of older workers, particularly women, who face the greatest blows of age discrimination.

Economist Teresa Ghilarducci, citing a study by the New York Federal Reserve on the PBS Newshour segment said that the “age earning profile, where you kind of peak and then it flattens out and falls, that age of peaking is a lot younger than we ever thought.”

According to The New School for Social Research: From ages 45 to 55, wages decrease by 9 percent, from ages 55 to 65, another 9 percent.

My interest was personal. I’m over the age of 50. When I turned 50 I started thinking about some of the older women that I had worked with when I was in college. I was barely 20, taking fast food orders at a Burger King drive-thru window. My orders were being filled by a crew of women in the late forties, fifties and sixties. I recall wondering what had landed them there at that age. It was a temporary situation for me. It was a means to an end. I was working to purchase text books for college, and pay off my 1982 Chrysler Cordoba, a luscious blueberry, with a white “ragtop.”

My mind lingered over the memories of these women and the talks I had with them about their families, past jobs and the importance of education. Last year, my team at Goodwill and I launched a program to train individuals to enter the field of technology. I wanted to attract older workers because standing on your feet in a concrete floored kitchen is really tough on the body, especially if you are a mature worker. With a few seed grants we launched GoodTech Academy.

Our goal was not just to teach computer classes, but to equip the students with the training and ultimately the certification to work on computer systems via our CompTIA A+ certification course. Our business partners echo what we’re seeing nationally that there’s a need to provide the highly coveted IT skills to work in networking, security and cybersecurity, so we’ve started offering those classes too.

Older workers provide life’s experiences and a tapestry of people and business skills that all employers can benefit from. We need everyone, all age groups, all experiences at the table. When we get everyone at the table then we can all eat well.

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