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6/19/2003

Boomers face unemployed reality

The Associated Press

NEW YORK — 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 teen-age 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, advised a woman in her 40s who has a master’s in business administration and had been making $85,000 as an executive. 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.