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Older workers race time in harsh job market

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By Star Tribune
Saturday, March 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

As hard as he tried, Michael Duffy couldn't find a job to match the one he'd lost.

For two decades he earned six figures selling equipment to factories. But at 62, he kept getting turned away, one job interview after another.

So last fall he started at Starbucks.

He wipes tables, mans a cash register that he's gradually learning and banters with people who order an espresso breve or a Caramel Brulee Latte. He has natural rapport with customers.

But he makes less in a day than he did in a half-hour at the peak of his sales career.

“The pay isn't what we would all hope,” Duffy, of Eden Prairie, Minn., said the day he started. “But it's something to do and it's great benefits and we'll see where it goes.”

That's the predicament now for more Americans than ever, and the challenge has gotten steeper in the prolonged recovery. Millions of workers in their 50s and 60s are drifting into the perilous intersection of unemployment, underemployment and retirement.

“The situation is worse today than it has been in past recoveries,” said Sara Rix, a senior strategist at the AARP Public Policy Institute. “These men and women have little time to recover, and working later in life may be the only way some can make it.”

The unemployment rate for workers older than 55 was higher during the Great Recession than it had been for decades, though it has fallen to a still-high 4.5 percent. Older workers remain jobless on average for about a year, far longer than younger workers. Almost half of those older than 55 who are unemployed have been so for six months or longer, a total of 761,000 people. The number of workers older than 55 who have dropped out of the labor force but say they still want a job is about 1.6 million, a 67 percent increase since 2007.

Some employers question older applicants' energy and enthusiasm, their technical knowledge, and their willingness to work with young people. A general bias against the long-term unemployed also works against older workers who have been jobless for months or years.

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