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July 3, 2021, 11:34 a.m. EDT

Baby boomers face financial distress and age discrimination

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Howard Gold

They were born and raised during the Golden Age of the U.S. economy , which lasted from 1948 through 1973, when a high school diploma could be a ticket to a well-paying job, a vacation home and a college degree for the kids. It was the postwar American dream , and millions considered it their birthright.

But now, after decades of economic upheaval, including three bear markets and two deep recessions in just the past 20 years, many baby boomers, the generation born between 1946 and 1964, are struggling. The eldest boomers have mostly retired. But millions of boomers in their 60s still want or need to work, and are having a hard time finding jobs.

COVID19 made the problem a lot worse. Nearly 900,000 Americans between the ages of 60 and 69 lost their jobs between December 2019 and December 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a 5% decline in the number of employed people in that age group. Some 21.2 million Americans in their 60s are no longer in the labor force, the BLS reported.  

Millions of Americans of all ages are suffering in COVID’s aftermath. Already 100,000 small businesses have closed . Thousands of cars wait hours at food banks. Nearly eight million Americans fell into poverty between June and November. Black and Latino people are bearing the brunt of it , in COVID deaths and economic damage, while unemployment has hit women harder than men.

But it also has made things worse for Americans in their 60s looking for one more act in their professional lives and whose prospects are as foggy as the legacy of their generation, which started out wanting to change the world and found, late in life, that the world had chastened them instead.

Behind those numbers are real human beings with stories to tell. MarketWatch found four of them, all people in their 60s with long records of professional success who were now trying to find purpose or, at least, some income to help pay the bills. None of them ran a hedge fund or cashed out in an IPO. None attended Ivy League colleges but went to state universities or technical schools and lived solid middle class lives as loyal, productive employees, raising families on high five- to low six-figure incomes.

Some had set aside a decent nest egg to tide them over while others had little cushion to face what may be involuntary retirement. According to a study commissioned by the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) , 96% of Americans face four or more “income shocks” during their lifetimes, which can reduce their retirement savings.

We contacted them after they responded on LinkedIn to an October column, “ Half of Americans over 55 may retire poor .” They were in varied financial shape—one had just emerged from personal bankruptcy, another had a well-funded retirement plan–dealing with aging parents, illness, even the sudden death of a spouse. All had been laid off with no explanation, some before COVID 19 hit. Since then, they had sent out dozens of resumes yet got few job interviews and even fewer offers. All firmly believed they faced systemic age discrimination.

Curtis Berndt, 65, felt that people eliminated him because of his age, “You go in, they look at you and they say ‘too old’ and you’re done.”

“I just find it discouraging. People don’t want to give you a chance,” said 61-year-old Karen Mater.

Here are their stories.

Curtis Berndt and Lu McCarty

Curtis Berndt and Lu McCarty spent their careers at the nexus of skilled craftsmanship and technical engineering.

Berndt began as a draftsman and then moved into product design, thanks to an associates’ degree in mechanical engineering from what is now Purdue University Fort Wayne. For 43 years, all in Indiana, he did advanced quality control, made mock-ups of new products and streamlined manufacturing processes to reduce defects and improve efficiency.

McCarty started out as a machinist working race cars and locomotives, then got a degree in mechanical engineering from a technical college in Sacramento, Calif. He worked as an engineer and product designer at companies like Hughes Space and Communications and Autodesk before eventually relocating to North Carolina and then to Connecticut.

For both men, the ax fell early in 2020.

Berndt had been working for a decade as a senior mechanical designer.” Everything was good and then all of a sudden — and I mean, really, all of a sudden–there was a huge financial issue and they decided they were going to have to get rid of people,” he said. “I had just turned 65 and three days later they didn’t need me anymore. It’s impossible to prove, but they assured me that my age had nothing to do with it.”

McCarty’s layoff was equally abrupt, just before his probation period ended and he would have been hired on permanently: “I got to my 59th day of probation and they told me I wasn’t a good fit for the company,” he said. “I had glowing reports from my colleagues, and then I was handed a ‘see you later’ notice.”

McCarty speculated his layoff came in the wake of a review of health care insurance premiums by a new insurance broker the company hired. “They’re trying to reduce costs,” he said.

It’s an all too familiar story with a just as familiar human toll. “I was treated so shoddily,” said Berndt, the shock and hurt still in his voice months later. “They had people there that were younger than me, that had less experience than me, but then I was probably getting paid more, too.” He also didn’t think COVID19 had much to do with it, since the pandemic still wasn’t on many people’s radar screens.

Berndt has applied for about 50 full-time job openings and gotten a handful of interviews.

“They say everything’s good until the face-to-face interview, and then it’s dead. From other people I’ve talked to in my age group, that’s pretty much the pattern,” he said.

“I’m searching all the time, every day,” said McCarty. He’s dropped his required salary to $45,000 a year, less than half of the $80,000-$120,000 he used to make. And he’s resigned to not getting a full-time position with benefits.

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