Financial Crisis Poses Problems and Opportunities for Older People

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

My friend and I sit on the sofa and catch up after the holidays. We are two healthy, 60-something women; we talk about our children and grandchildren, we share our dreams. And then I say: "I think more about death now."

"You, too?" she replies, at first surprised and then reassured. "I think about it all the time."

Not just because we're aging. It's because of the toxic economy. Like many Americans, we are suffering from a strain of financial illness that targets older men and women. We are too old to start over and rebuild a nest egg; we are too young to depend on what is left in our retirement savings to sustain us for the nearly 30 years that statisticians estimate we are likely to live.

As a result, a dark angst spreads among us. My friend tells me about her sister, who went to the doctor for a repeat mammogram because she had a suspicious lump: She was half hoping for a cancer diagnosis so she could say to herself, Finally it will be over.

What a dangerous mind game of desperation! The lump proved benign. The woman has moved on. But the global epidemic of financial illness has prompted a common complaint: I cannot afford to live too long. I cannot afford to live out my normal life expectancy.

This is crazy, given that older people are healthier and more active and have more options than in previous generations. My friend and I ought to be really excited about being longevity pioneers.

But we're not dancing. We're scared.

At the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America a few months ago, the title of a symposium warned: "New Economic Woes Hit Boomers, Seniors Hardest." More recently, a conference at the International Longevity Center in New York explored the "Impact of Economic Crisis on Older Adults."

There is an effective treatment, the experts agree: Keep working, put off "retirement." If unemployed, get a new job.

But that's like telling a patient there is a cure but it's probably out of reach. In the current crisis, there are few jobs for anyone, and even fewer for older people. "We're seeing an increase [in unemployment] at older ages," Richard W. Johnson of the Urban Institute said at the Gerontological Society meeting. Studies also show that older men and women take longer to find a new job and usually face a substantial pay cut.

One reason is ageism. The plight of the older worker was dire even before this meltdown. In 2006, a 62-year-old man in Ohio chose an unorthodox financial plan: He robbed a bank, waited for the police to arrest him, then asked the judge for a three-year prison term (a wish that was granted) because he hadn't been able to find a real job with benefits in several years and he could no longer support himself on the outside.

"There is age discrimination out there," Timothy J. Bowers told the judge, according to news reports.

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