Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Don't Forget Older Workers in Job Creation Plan!

Orlando Sentinel: Here's why older Americans need a place in Obama's New Deal

As President-elect Barack Obama reinvents President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal with his jobs and economic-stimulus package, I urge him to consider older Americans in that deal, as Roosevelt did. Not with a handout, but with opportunity.

Jobs programs created during the Great Depression provided aid to targeted groups. The Civilian Conservation Corps employed hundreds of thousands of young, out-of-work laborers, while the Works Progress Administration assisted millions more, from white-collar workers to the artists who epitomized the WPA era.

One segment of the population especially vulnerable to today's economic shocks and job losses includes workers older than 45.

Not only do unemployed older Americans, by definition, have less time to recover and rebuild for retirement, those in the 45-to-64 age bracket often support children and their elderly parents simultaneously. Still others older than 65 are finding they cannot retire or must rejoin the work force. Though the reasons are varied — failed pensions, shrinking 401(k)s, the collapsing housing market or inadequate savings — the fact is the baby-boomer generation in particular is woefully unprepared for its later years.

According to the Florida Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research, Floridians older than 45 are projected to comprise 44.2 percent of the state's population by 2010 — four percentage points higher than in 2000. That's 8.5 million people hitting the so-called "gray ceiling," the time when finding a good job becomes noticeably more difficult.

Rather than describe themselves as unemployed, older Americans often use the face-saving excuse of claiming they are retired. In actuality, many belong to the "discouraged worker" category, a demographic excluded from official government unemployment rates.

Ironically, though older job applicants are often less valued by employers because of health-insurance costs and the perception that they are less-technically proficient or affordable than younger workers, they have much to offer in tested skills and life experience. Today's older workers are also better-educated than those of past generations. This intellectual capital, a valuable resource to a nation seeking to rebuild itself, is in danger of either going to waste or being lost all together.

The creation of a jobs program that enlists older Americans could help alleviate several problems.

First, the U.S. could use this "army" of mature workers to take on tasks for which there is an urgent, temporary need or a long-term shortage. Specialized teams could perform a variety of services: education support, health-care administration, post- FEMA disaster follow-up and stateside support duties for the military, allowing soldiers to be deployed to critical areas where their capabilities are most in demand.

Workers in the program could be given pay, which, while probably not matching their former incomes, would be an improvement over the minimum-wage positions so many feel forced to accept. Retraining for new careers could help them find meaningful, quality jobs once the program ended.

Second, older workers who do not yet qualify for Medicare, often go uninsured because private insurance is prohibitive in cost. If health insurance were offered to this work force, particularly preventive health care, it might ultimately decrease the strain on Medicare in the years ahead.

Finally, in exchange for their service to the country and their communities, members of the corps could be offered an option wherein their contributions to Social Security could be matched or increased above normal levels, meaning that when they retire, they would be able to draw on a larger monthly income, and thus not be reduced to poverty or substandard living conditions.

For years, Congress and the media have expounded on the threat America's 70-million-plus baby boomers pose to our country's economic security as they retire. Instead, let's hear about how this vital demographic, which revolutionized America during the 20th century, can continue to produce positive change well into the 21st.

Claudia O'Keefe lived in St. Petersburg for seven years before moving to Albuquerque, N.M., to attend school. She plans to return to Florida.

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