Over New Year's, I had a sobering conversation with a retired friend who lives in Oklahoma. Sobering because, these days, it's a conversation that I find myself having more often with people my age. My friend is 67, and needs to supplement his modest pension and Social Security payment in order to cover minimum bases. In fact, he'd be happy to go on working, because he's bright, highly educated and mentally active, not the golfing-in-Florida type. But he can't find a job, even though he had a solid career with a California engineering firm for 20 years.
Soylent Red, White and Blue
"I've been to the Job Center dozens of times," he said. "They're hiring medical assistants, drivers, fast food people, low-level retail, service-type jobs. They want to hire young people that they can push around and underpay. They just don't hire old people. Nobody is hiring an engineer like me. We're told that companies don't like re-training older people. Well, not many of them want to spend money training people, period. If you don't already know how to do the job they're trying to fill, they won't hire you."
A number of growing problems are merging into a "perfect employment storm" for seniors. America's growing economic disfunction. The growing population of aging baby boomers. The growing cost of everything. Growing unemployment rate. Growing inability to cover senior housing and medical needs. Not to mention the growing scarcity of jobs because of mindless outsourcing by the corporate sector.
The Labor Department runs something called Senior Community Service Employment, authorized by the 1965 Older Americans Act, but that was 40 years ago -- is it enough today? AARP is getting a few corporations together with senior hiring, but is it enough to reach into the boonies where people like my friend live?
What is government planning to do with the growing desperate population of vigorous retirement-age seniors who need to work? Social Security may struggle on, but what will happen when Medicare finally collapses? Will corporate and personal retirement plans survive the turmoil in the financial markets? What happens to somebody like my friend once his pittance isn't enough and he loses his home and vehicle?
Is anybody in Washington D.C. haunted by these questions? Or do our solons plan to wait till enough dead bodies of homeless seniors turn up on the street every week to give them a moment's pause? Or maybe their attention might be gotten by a growing suicide rate among employable seniors who are facing homelessness because they can't get a job? The numbers of elder homeless have grown significantly, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless -- in Massachusetts, for example, they spiked by 60 percent over five years.
As for the LGBT community, jobs provided by LGBT-owned business are a bit thin because we're so small-business based. We tend to underpay, and we have our own ugly problems with ageism at hiring time. Worst of all, our community has only limited support resources -- or even concern -- for our own aging population. Some of the people with whom I have these anxious conversations are elder and employment-seeking LGBT friends of mine. Outside the LGBT employment world, we run into extra problems in unfriendly sectors of the mainstream job world. The growing numbers of openly transgendered and intersex people have their own unique employment problems and just got kicked in the teeth by ENDA.
How will we help our own brothers and sisters leap the job gap after age 65?
Remember that futuristic 1973 movie "Soylent Green," about a U.S. A. overwhelmed with population and environmental problems, where dead people are cold-bloodedly recycled to feed the state? Are we looking at a "Soylent Red, White and Blue" national future, where people spend four decades working and contributing to society, and after that must accept the fate of being shuffled into the social landfill when they're no longer deemed employable? Is "Soylent Pink" looming in the LGBT world, where you can have a productive, exciting out life for a while...then suddenly find that you can't keep a roof over your head?
More of us need to start asking these questions, and putting our minds to solutions. Today it's somebody else's story we hear...tomorrow it will be our own story. We need to pester our elected representatives about them. And it's not too late to grill the candidates for President about this issue. None of them have said much of any significance about seniors who need to work.
Copyright (c) 2008 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.