As members of the U.S. Congress play chicken, glaring at each other across the aisle, more people will experience the day-to-day crisis of lost wages and income insecurity. If Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling by mid-October and the nation defaults on its obligations, things could get far worse. According to a statement issued by the U.S. Treasury last week, “[A] default would be unprecedented and has the potential to be catastrophic: credit markets could freeze, the value of the dollar could plummet, and U.S. interest rates could skyrocket, potentially resulting in a financial crisis and recession that could echo the events of 2008 or worse,”
Just what we need.
The U.S. is still struggling to recover from the Great Recession that began in 2009. And its my gender and age group, women born between 1946 and 1964, that have suffered the most. Women were entering the work force in record numbers as the new millennium started but our participation rate has fallen sharply since late 2009. It is now at 57% compared to 70% for men. Both women and men of the Baby Boomer generation who do not yet have access to Medicare and Social Security, have lost more of their earning power than any other age group.
I am hidden somewhere inside those statistics, though if one could paint shades of grey among the picture of the unemployed, I know I am luckier than most. After I was laid-off, I received a four-month severance for my nearly 19 years of work with the same organization. Earlier that same year, I had finally paid off all debts on my home. My son was honored with a substantial merit scholarship for college and I had managed to build up a cushion of savings above and beyond what I hope to use for my retirement. Though I’m a single mother and wage-earner, I’ve kept my family afloat by finding short-term work and contract jobs while I search for regular employment.
I’m also a writer, so I’ve made use of this time by writing as much as I can. I’ve made good headway on a novel and last month I completed a ‘hybrid memoir’ that tells the story of the last few years through personal reflections, poetry and fiction. Like the careful construction of a crazy quilt, this collection works to create a whole from what is real and what is imagined, what passes and what remains. Needless to say, I want to see these hard economic times pass. For anyone on survival mode, what remains is the affection and support of our loved ones, our friends and our communities.
I’d like to stay optimistic, but things are not looking good. Baby Boomers have a reputation for trying new things, pushing the boundaries, giving our all for something we believe in– if we have the chance. But according to a Gallup study, older workers who were unable to find work for a year or longer showed measurable declines in their health, self-esteem and overall emotional well-being. And why wouldn’t they feel this way? After 17 months of unemployment, those between the ages of 50 and 61 have only a 9% chance of finding a job within the next three months. This figure falls to 6% if the person is over 62. When, and if, older workers are able to find work, studies show that it will take them longer to recover emotionally from the experience of joblessness than if they had lost a spouse. No wonder the highest rates of suicide currently fall among the Baby Boomer generation.
Like most older workers, I was cut from my job just as I was entering my prime earning potential. Those of us who do manage to find regular employment will almost inevitably suffer greater wage losses than our younger co-workers just starting the climb up the income ladder. Over the last several years young people were more likely to get stuck with layoffs, but they recuperated faster by finding a new job sooner than older workers, and with less of a hit to their paycheck. In an uncertain economy, young workers give employers what they want: cheap labor and lower healthcare costs.
This does not mean that the rest of American workers are sitting pretty. According to the Social Security Administration, half of all wage earners who filed a W-4 with an employer and paid FICA taxes earned $27,000 per year or less from their job. We are a nation of working poor. How could we possibly survive another recession?
Colder, darker months are approaching. Perhaps you’ll find me with the heat turned low and the tips of my gloves snipped off so that I can keep typing. I also hope you’ll find me on the job.