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If You’re Over 50, Chances Are the Decision to Leave a Job Won’t be Yours

A new data analysis by ProPublica and the Urban Institute shows more than half of older U.S. workers are pushed out of longtime jobs before they choose to retire, suffering financial damage that is often irreversible.

By Peter Gosselin

Tom Steckel hunched over a laptop in the overheated basement of the state Capitol building in Pierre, South Dakota, early last week, trying to figure out how a newly awarded benefit claims contract will make it easier for him do his job.

Steckel is South Dakota’s director of employee benefits. His department administers programs that help the state’s 13,500 public employees pay for health care and prepare for retirement.

It’s steady work and, for that, Steckel, 62, is grateful. After turning 50, he was laid off three times before landing his current position in 2014, weathering unemployment stints of up to eight months.

When he started, his $90,000-a-year salary was only 60 percent of what he made at his highest-paying job. Even with a subsequent raise, he’s nowhere close to matching his peak earnings.

Money is hardly the only trade-off Steckel has made to hang onto the South Dakota post.

He spends three weeks of every four away from his wife, Mary, and the couple’s three children, who live 700 miles away in Plymouth, Wisconsin, in a house the family was unable to sell for most of the last decade.

Steckel keeps photos of his wife, Mary, and their three children on the mantel at his rented place in Pierre. (Ackerman + Gruber, special to ProPublica)

With Christmas approaching, he set off late on Dec. 18 for the 11-hour drive home. When the holiday is over, he’ll drive back to Pierre.

“I’m glad to be employed,” he said, “but this isn’t what I would have planned for this point in my life.”

Many Americans assume that by the time they reach their 50s they’ll have steady work, time to save and the right to make their own decisions about when to retire.

But as Steckel’s situation suggests, that’s no longer the reality for many — indeed, most — people.

ProPublica and the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study, or HRS, the premier source of quantitative information about aging in America. Since 1992, the study has followed a nationally representative sample of about 20,000 people from the time they turn 50 through the rest of their lives.

Through 2016, our analysis found that between the time older workers enter the study and when they leave paid employment, 56 percent are laid off at least once or leave jobs under such financially damaging circumstances that it’s likely they were pushed out rather than choosing to go voluntarily.

Only one in 10 of these workers ever again earns as much as they did before their employment setbacks, our analysis showed. Even years afterward, the household incomes of over half of those who experience such work disruptions remain substantially below those of workers who don’t.

“This isn’t how most people think they’re going to finish out their work lives,” said Richard Johnson, an Urban Institute economist and veteran scholar of the older labor force who worked on the analysis. “For the majority of older Americans, working after 50 is considerably riskier and more turbulent than we previously thought.”

The HRS is based on employee surveys, not employer records, so it can’t definitively identify what’s behind every setback, but it includes detailed information about the circumstances under which workers leave jobs and the consequences of these departures.

We focused on workers who enter their 50s with stable, full-time jobs and who’ve been with the same employer for at least five years — those who HRS data and other economic studies show are least likely to encounter employment problems. We considered only separations that result in at least six months of unemployment or at least a 50 percent drop in earnings from pre-separation levels.

Then, we sorted job departures into voluntary and involuntary and, among involuntary departures, distinguished between those likely driven by employers and those resulting from personal issues, such as poor health or family problems. (See the full analysis here.)

We found that 28 percent of stable, longtime employees sustain at least one damaging layoff by their employers between turning 50 and leaving work for retirement.

“We’ve known that some workers get a nudge from their employers to exit the work force and some get a great big kick,” said Gary Burtless, a prominent labor economist with the Brookings Institution in Washington. “What these results suggest is that a whole lot more are getting the great big kick.”

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