Unemployed Baby Booomers encounter particular cruelties in the job search

Thursday, June 19th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Mary Jones Pelt got the bad news a year ago. She had worked in accounts receivable at Boar's Head Provisions Co. Inc. for 17 years, but the maker of luncheon meats was moving from New York to Florida.

Pelt decided to stay with her family in New York _ and found discouragement at every turn.

Some employers say she is overqualified; others offer half what she made at Boar's Head. Unemployment benefits have run out, and Pelt, 44, worries she might end up in a low-paying job in a supermarket alongside her teenage daughter.

``I didn't think at this stage of my life I'd be making decisions like this,'' Pelt said. ``I thought I'd be making plans for my retirement.''

With nationwide unemployment at 6.1 percent in May, America has plenty of stories of disappointment. But Pelt's experience illustrates the particular cruelties joblessness inflicts on baby boomers, the more than 70 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964.

Many are hunting for work for the first time in decades, but are limited in their flexibility to move and pressured to provide for their children or elderly parents.

``The unemployment numbers just tell part of the story,'' said Leslie B. Prager, senior partner in The Prager-Bernstein Group, a career service in New York. ``What many individuals are having to do is take a stopgap job, possibly a job that would make them underemployed, while they wait for a job that's more like what they were doing before.''

The unemployment rate for 45- to 54-year-olds was 4.1 percent in the first quarter, up from 2.4 percent three years earlier, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The overall jump in that period was from 4.0 percent to 5.8 percent.

The effects can be seen at the New York City Workforce1 Career Center in Manhattan, a federally funded job training and counseling office jointly run by the city and state. Based in Harlem, the center's staff works with everyone from Ph.D. holders to laborers who need computer training, networking advice and help writing resumes.

Counselor Susan Banks tells boomers to make sure their resumes highlight ways they helped their previous employers save money or bring in new revenue. She also helps get their computer skills as up-to-date as possible.

``You're seeing people who have been in their jobs 15, 16, 20 years, who did things a certain way _ they were in a routine,'' Banks said. ``That's not good enough anymore.''

Althea Dickson, another counselor at the Harlem center, recently advised a woman in her 40s who has a master's in business administration and had been making $85,000 in an executive position. Unable to find anything comparable, the woman sought administrative assistant jobs, but kept hearing she was overqualified. Many employers resist hiring such people out of fear they'll leave when the economy turns around.

Dickson finally suggested the woman undersell herself. They took her MBA off her resume, leaving her with a bachelor's degree. They downgraded her previous executive position to administrative assistant. The woman was hired as an assistant, making $32,000.

``It's frustrating when you hear you're overqualified,'' said Carmen Polson, 49, who has been unemployed since May 2002, when the steel company where she was a high-level assistant merged with two rivals. ``What do you say? `But sir, I need this job!'''

Polson tries to stay upbeat. She checks newspaper listings and sends e-mail queries every Tuesday, out of the belief that pitches that arrive on Mondays get lost or tossed in the first-day-back-from-the-weekend crunch.

Her husband, an electrical engineer, is willing to leave New York if necessary, but Polson still hopes to land something in the city.

``Everything will change,'' Polson said. ``Nothing lasts forever.''

That might be the biggest lesson unemployment taught Joan Allen, 50, of Baltimore. For her, being an out-of-work boomer became a blessing.

Allen had lived a white-collar life until new management at a mall ousted her as marketing director 11 years ago.

Never married, and without children, Allen decided to gamble. Instead of seeking another regular job, she cobbled together a series of projects _ a process she now says helped her ``inner person'' burst out.

She took refresher courses in TV production, worked as a freelancer and did a documentary on teenage depression. She wrote a book for single boomers, did some matchmaking and recently turned a family recipe into a brownie-making business, Chocolate Goddess.

Getting laid off ``could have been a mid-life crisis,'' she said. ``But I kept thinking of myself when I was 70 years old, looking back with regrets. I had to erase that image. That would be more painful than anything.''