The Road Ahead for Older Job Seekers

As the White House prepares its budget proposals for the coming fiscal year and the U.S. House prepares to reject them (because they are, well, from the White House), millions of older Americans who have lost their jobs, their unemployment, in many cases their houses and much of their retirement funding are holding out little hope of much relief.

The GAO reported nearly two years ago on the plight faced by Baby Boomers, whose higher salaries make them prime candidates for cutbacks, layoffs and eliminations brought on by changing technology. Things have only worsened, with older job-seekers finding themselves more likely to be among the long-term unemployed, often dropping out of the job market altogether. Worsening the problem are the numbers showing those lucky enough to return to the workforce taking pay much lower, says the GAO, than what they were earning in their previous jobs.

Once the unemployment and food stamps are gone, what's next? We face a job market largely unwilling to hire us. While the tight job market isn't just a Boomer issue, those with 35 or 40 years in the job market find themselves competing not only with each other but seemingly also with our children and sometimes grandchildren for a paycheck. We are too young and too healthy to simply retire, yet viewed as too old to contribute. While repeated studies have shown older workers do not take jobs from those younger, today's realities often make it appear we're all on the same playing field.

The Social Security Administration's rules allow retirement as early as 62 -- an option nearly half those eligible use these days. But doing so reduces monthly income an average of 25 percent. Even this option is a dream for those of us in our late 50s who wonder how to bridge the gap in a virtually dead job market until retirement is possible. With another decade's worth of Boomers still to come, the problems are only going to grow.

I have a solution, or at least a starting point for discussion of one. Hear me out...

One affected group is those whose unemployment benefits have simply run out. Our Congress has shown itself is no mood to extend. The other affected group is those (like me) who have spent the past decade or more self-employed as job-creators but now find themselves ineligible for benefits. Our businesses closed due to economic conditions often out of our control. We were not laid off, but had to cease operations.

My proposal is to make those in both groups eligible for half of their Social Security benefits at age 58. Additionally, we would be able to work to earn up to that same amount of money each month without losing those benefits or suffering penalty. Example: if Social Security brings us $1,000 a month, so we could also earn an additional thousand. This additional pay would be subject to the usual withholding. Once age 65 is reached, the current rules will apply.

This program would allow older, laid-off or otherwise idle workers some income. Even without a job, there would be cash for food and other costs and to spend money supporting the local economy. At the same time, there is incentive to find part-time work and continue contributing to Social Security, Medicaid and the overall tax base. Most importantly, with a job, those covered by this system would find a sense of self-worth by being more able to stay in their house, earn a paycheck and no longer be bypassed. Potentially, employers would be able to know the top-end budget for such workers while keeping full-time slots open for those younger and longer-term.

Certainly, this idea brings some major questions. First is one of cost. It's easy to say it could be covered by raising taxes on those with higher incomes, but that's a proven non-starter in today's political environment. I am certainly no federal budgeteer or analyst, so I leave that to those with more expertise. This is only an idea. The second question is one of potential fraud, but I'd postulate the likelihood is no greater here than in any other federal program. Further, the lists of those whose benefits have run out or those who are ruled ineligible for unemployment are already in the system. The IRS and the Social Security Administration already share much of this information anyway.

The issue is there are millions of valuable, willing, proven workers who find themselves these days being shut out of jobs. Certainly, to a degree, it's a numbers game. This is a huge generation of people elbowing each other for more room. But programs to deal with this issue are severely lacking and we cannot simply throw up our hands and wait for it to pass. Creative solutions are needed and simply saying "no" will be more costly in less than a generation.
Sometimes it seems, in facing such challenges, we are Lindbergh deciding to land in Nova Scotia. He didn't and we shouldn't.

We're better than that.