Older men disappearing from work force


SAN FRANCISCO -- Howard Summers would have been a great guest on the old TV quiz show, "I've Got a Secret."

Mr. Summers, a 57-year-old product development engineer who was the victim of a job reshuffle at the Silicon Valley Group, has carefully stripped his resume of anything that would reveal his age.

College graduation and employment dates are gone. His cover letters don't mention that he has 35 years of experience. Instead, he says he's been working only 15 years.

After attending self-esteem workshops, Mr. Summers now concentrates on positive thinking exercises as he drives to interviews.

"I talk about my accomplishments to boost my spirits," he said.

It's probably little consolation, but Mr. Summers isn't alone. Steadily, inexorably, men over the age of 55 are disappearing from the U.S. work force.

At an age when they might have expected to be senior managers or professionals in their peak earning years, they are instead something they never expected to be: unemployed.

Where working until 65 was once the norm, more than a third of all men between 55 and 64 are now out of the work force, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It's a trend with profound implications for baby boomers, who will start turning 50 next year.

Instead of socking away money for retirement, many men can expect to find themselves jobless and a decade away from their first Social Security check.

For those lucky enough to escape with generous buyouts or early retirement plans, it can mean a liberating, stress-free splurge of golf, travel and quality time with the family.

Many more, however, continue to get out of bed every morning, shave, put on a suit and a tie and leave home -- with no job to go to.

They spend their days in resume-writing classes and self-esteem workshops, reassuring each other that somebody out there really wants to hire someone their age.

Some see the pink slip coming and have time to prepare. Others are shoved out of their life work with virtually no warning.

In a group counseling session recently, five of the eight unemployed older men said they had started coloring their hair, and another showed up with a toupee, Mr. Summers said.

Mr. Summers spends at least one day a week volunteering in the Oakland office of Forty-Plus, a nationwide organization dedicated to helping older workers find jobs.

He's in a group called the Soaring Silver Eagles, for people over 55.

The disappearance of older men from the American work force is a long-standing trend, rather than a recent casualty of downsizing.

Since 1949, when 87.3 percent of all men 55 to 64 were in the labor force, they've been vanishing at about half a percent a year.

By 1994, just 64.8 percent were in the labor force. The rest weren't bothering to look for work or had given up hope.

By comparison, roughly 90 percent of men in their 20s, 30s, 40s and early 50s were in the work force.

As older men have been vanishing from the work force, older women have been joining it -- at almost precisely the same rate.

Since 1949, when just 23.6 percent of women ages 55 to 64 were in the labor force, their numbers have grown steadily at about half a percent a year to 46.8 percent in 1994.

Economists say there's no simple explanation. There are complex economic, social and personal forces combining to reshape the labor force.

For men, it's a combination of early retirement plans, downsizing and other economic factors, said Philip Rones, chief of the Bureau of Labor Statistics' division of labor force statistics.

For women, he said, it's mainly the result of social factors. Women who entered the work force in the 1960s and '70s are increasingly showing up in the 55-and-older category, he said.

But Mr. Rones said it's impossible to say how many older men are leaving the work force voluntarily and how many are being forced out.

"If your company offers you a buyout, and you think you might be laid off anyway in six months, are you leaving voluntarily or involuntarily?" he said. "You could ask two people in identical situations and get two different answers."

Being unemployed was unthinkable for men in the days when their paychecks were the sole means of family support. These days, said Mr. Rones, that's less often the case.

Paychecks brought home by wives, pensions, increased Social Security benefits and increased home-equity values all ease the economic pressure on older men to be the provider.

"In some cases they send their wives off to work and do the house-hubby thing," he said.

Voluntary or not, the disappearance of older workers from the labor force has had a deep impact on the U.S. economy, according to a 1993 study by the Commonwealth Fund.

The yearly lost contributions to the U.S. economy of idled workers age 55 and older is equivalent to 2.6 percent of the gross domestic product, the study found.

Corporate America doesn't see that side of it, according to Barry Glassner, chairman of the University of Southern California's sociology department and author of the book, "Career Crash."

"Corporate management is primarily concerned with efficiency and competitiveness," he said.

"Young people work longer hours and produce more in volume per dollar than older workers. The kinds of values that used to matter -- experience and loyalty -- don't matter as much anymore."

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