Grappling with a mid-life job crisis

Steven Kirn lives in Barrington, a suburb Northwest of Chicago.

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Bob Moon: When it comes to the job losses Americans are suffering through, it's been said that this has been very much a "middle class" recession. That's because it's hit broadly -- from manufacturing to real estate to finance -- taking down many more mid-career professionals than a typical downturn. And many of those workers may never catch up to the career level they'd reached before.

In this installment of our series "Help Not Wanted," Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman travels to Chicago to see how the "recovery" we've been hearing about is panning out for one worker who has to start over.


Mitchell Hartman: Imagine: You're pushing 60. Nice house, money in the bank. No plans to retire. Then, after decades in corporate management, there's a shake-up and you're out the door. But you can still pick up consulting gigs and bring in some income.

That's where Steve Kirn found himself when he pulled this message out of a fortune cookie a few years ago. He thought it was funny, so he framed it.

Steve Kirn: "You'll earn thousands of dollars daily, by doing nothing."

Hartman: And you were unemployed for two years, did you find that to be true?

Kirn: No, alas, it was terrible. No, it was actually really a very distressing time.

At a downtown job center run by the Chicago Federation of Labor, the caseworkers have seen a lot of mid-career professionals like Kirn grappling with these "distressing times."

Mara Suttmann: I will never forget the first time one of my clients got a job; it was like I was getting a job. Jumping up and down, hugs.

Mara Suttmann has a caseload of about 50 people --- from construction, health care, high tech and finance. She says many of them spent 20 years at the same company or at least in the same field, moving steadily up the organizational chart.

Suttmann: When they first come to us, we sit down with them and say, "Listen, it's an employer's market, people have to take wage cuts."

Ellen Kilmer: And we find that a lot of the older, really experienced, really educated people have to dumb down.

Caseworker Ellen Kilmer.

Kilmer: They've done all that work, they've done all that education, and now,\ they have to pretend like they don't have a master's degree, because some people don't want to hire that advanced of people, because it's expensive.

And that's how you get people like Steve Kirn struggling to make ends meet. They've earned senior-level salaries, saved and invested. Now, late in their careers, they're burning through it all.

Kirn shows me around his spread in the suburb of Barrington. He's surrounded by horse farms and developments with names like "Oaksbury" and "Timberlake Estates."

Kirn: See those evergreen trees? Those evergreen trees are the back of my yard. These are all minimum two-acre lots, good-sized houses, not quite McMansions, but there are some of those around here as well.

Kirn's lived in one of these "not-quite-McMansions" with his wife and chronically ill daughter for nearly two decades. They moved in after he became a human resources VP at Sears.

He's been job-hunting for more than two years. There will be interest, but then...

Kirn: When people figure out how old you are, things go away. People get less interviews, less follow-ups and so forth. We've gained all this information and this experience, and are not really old in a mental or physical sense, and really want to do something. And I don't know what to do with that.

Meanwhile, Kirn and his wife have been running through their savings.

Kirn: But then we start dipping into the savings where you're taking the 10 percent penalty for early withdrawal just to get some money to pay the mortgage, and you're keeping up appearances, and everything is fine.

And here's what Kirn's found out about "appearances:"

Kirn: I was walking the dog and ran into a neighbor. Standing on one corner, they pointed at no fewer than six or seven houses, where they said, "Oh yeah, this couple here, both of them lost their jobs. This guy lost his job, she lost her job." And I was completely unaware of it.

As of today, Steve Kirn is no longer one of these jobless suburbanites. He's on the road to Gainesville, to run a management training program at the University of Florida, where he'll be talking to young people about the tough job market they face.

I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

Moon: There's a lot more to trying to start over in this "jobless" recovery. And our sister program Marketplace Money is traveling to WBEZ in Chicago this weekend to find out what people there are doing to look for work, like Sherri McClendon. After 34 years of continuous employment, she'll work anywhere -- Wal-Mart, McDonald's -- you name it.

Sherri McClendon: I never thought I would say that 10 years ago. Probably would have turned my nose up, but how humble we get. How very humble we get.

Check out our website for a ton of info on our Chicago special this weekend.

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