In a lot of cases, those nightmares likely will come true. In previous economic downturns, laid-off older workers merely worried how long it would take them to find new jobs and earn their former incomes. Today, older workers' chances of actually ever working again appear slimmer each day. It will take years to absorb the giant pool of unemployed -- at least at the economy's current pace of growth -- and many older workers will simply age out of the labor force before anyone ever hires them again.
When President Obama talks about a segment of the population who will be left out of the recovery, the over-50s know he means them. There is little encouragement to be found in the nation's latest jobs figures: official unemployment stayed at 9.6% and unofficial estimates -- counting the people who are no longer eligible for jobless benefits and hence aren't even counted, hover near 20%.
There are a few factors working against the 50-pluses in the job hunt. Whether it's true or not, they are perceived of as "old school," short on technology skills, and resistant to change. Many over-50 workers waste time chasing their old jobs that no longer exist. Others have watched the Internet's speeding bullet train roar past them and haven't tried to jump aboard. And others stay mired in the quicksand of their anger about being laid off, spewing venom each time they get someone's ear.
We spoke to a few experts about how to overcome the obstacles if you are job-seeking at 50-plus.
1. You can teach old dogs new tricks. Prove the naysayers wrong by going out and acquiring the new skills you need to compete. One of the first skills to learn is how to use social media in your job hunt. Chances are, the last time you were out of work all it took was a dusting off of your resume and a few calls to people in your business network before you were back at a desk. That's not the case today.
A big component in job-hunting 2010-style is social networking. Think of it as casting a wider net and reeling in some new virtual friends. It's a way of expanding your business network without having to travel far. So take a course at your local community college or see if there is a class offered by your unemployment office. Heck, just ask one of your grandkids to teach you. You need to have a LinkedIn account for your job searches and you need to know how to effectively use Facebook.
From there, make sure your tech skills are current. Learn the lingo; Googled is indeed a verb. Don't brag how you've never tweeted; that won't impress the 25-year-old recruiter from hiring and development. And if you haven't upgraded to a smart phone yet, you might miss that important e-mail from a recruiter who wants to talk to you now. Did I say e-mail? Sorry, I meant text.
The bottom line: Get over what intimidates you. Accept that what you already know isn't enough to land you a job. And remember, this isn't brain surgery; it's just a different way to do things that you're already very good at.
By the way, once you get some social media and technology experience, be sure and include it on your resume. Even Wal-Mart greeters know how to Twitter these days.
2. Don't let your resume scream your age. Age used to be linked with wisdom and experience. Today it is just as frequently linked with out-of-date skills and unrealistic salary expectations. So stop fighting it and go age neutral. Some experts believe your resume should state the college degrees you earned, but not the years in which you earned them. Others say drop the early years of your experience on your resume and instead use the space to show what current skills you have. After all, to report that you were a Linotype operator when everything today is digital makes little sense anyway.
3. The companies you keep. Many over-50 workers cut their teeth in industries that have shriveled up -- so much so that just naming the company on your resume dates you. Saying you started your career at Ma Bell (Bell Telephone) tells the recruiter that you're a dinosaur. Companies get absorbed by other companies every day and it behooves you to double check that your former place of business isn't operating under a different name, especially if its new name will be more recognizable name to a recruiter. BusinessWeek didn't always belong to Bloomberg. and Shearson Lehman Brothers wasn't always one company.
4. Project a youthful outlook. We're not suggesting a round of face-lifts here, although keeping yourself in shape is as important for your health as it is to impress people who could hire you. It is less about how you look and more about how you sound. A youthful outlook here means being upbeat, showing creativity, resourcefulness and embracing new challenges. Check your anger at your old boss at the door; nobody wants to listen to your gripes. The words you chose to describe the circumstances of your departure from your last job are critical. Experts note: You didn't get fired; you were laid off. An even better way to get over that hump is to offer a sentence that starts like this: "Since I left the ABC Company last year, I've been working as a consultant in the same industry." That one is a double-hitter because it not only moves the conversation past how you came to be unemployed, but it also covers the resume gap of how you've been spending the past year.
5. Aren't you overqualified? Why yes indeed, there's good chance you are. How astute of the recruiter to notice that your law degree is perhaps not necessary for the task at hand. Your best bet is to anticipate the question and address it in your cover letter or interview. Kimberly Bishop -- named by BusinessWeek as one of the world's most influential headhunters -- says don't wait until you are asked. "Explain why you are specifically interested in the job or the company and how your previous experience will be an asset, not a negative."
None of this advice will be news to people like 63-year-old Tim Hylen, a former Marine who saw action in Vietnam. Hylen lives outside of Flint, Michigan and, like pretty much everybody else in Flint Michigan, had a job with GM for decades. He came back from war, went to college and began selling auto supply parts -- which he pretty much did and did well until the recession. Now he's signed up to be a substitute teacher and is getting some technology training through a state program, Michigan Works.
Still, he is unemployed. His lake home which cost $500,000 was recently appraised at $275,000 and he's blown through $200,000 in savings since 2006 when he first lost his job; much of the money was spent on his wife's cancer treatments for gaps that his health insurance wouldn't cover. No need to tell him he's overqualified for the $11 an hour job he took at Quicken Loans verifying information on applications. That job eventually got outsourced, by the way.
"He continues to work at odd jobs because he is a proud man who refuses to give up," says his daughter-in-law. "I have a lot of admiration for him and it's also taught me the value of my job and how nothing is a guarantee. He spends his days looking for work, applying, talking to head hunters -- and he manages to remain positive."