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Finding new work difficult for older workers

A job seeker fills out a registration form at a job fair.

Fred Sanford

Adriene Hill: But those nickels and dimes and dollars can be hard to come by for people out of work, especially older workers.

Take people 55 and over. If they lose a job, they are, on average, out of work for a year. That's many months longer than younger people and finding that next job can take more than time, as Marketplace's John Dimsdale tells us, it sometimes requires a whole lot of creativity.


John Dimsdale: Older workers face extra challenges when they lose a job. It's harder to convince employers they're a good long-term investment when it comes to training and likely health care costs. Plus, elderly workers don't have as much time to earn back their lost salary.

Matt Rutledge: There's been a lot of research done on the scarring effects of losing one's job.

That's Matt Rutledge, an economist at the Center for Retirement Research.

Rutledge: And they found that as much as a 25 percent reduction in earnings going forward about five or six years. And more than a quarter of older workers who lost their jobs actually had their earnings halved in their next job.

Fred Sanford knows all this first hand. Right around 2004, after 18 years in the mortgage business in the Chicago area, Sanford decided to hitch his career to the booming market for financial planners in sunny Orlando, Fla.

Fred Sanford: I'm a people person so the relationship part of it and my financial part of it and everything else just seemed like the perfect culmination of everything that I had done in the past was pointing to "this is going to be great."

He was 53. And he found plenty of customers willing to entrust their nest eggs to his financial planning expertise.

Sanford: By about my third year into the business, I had collected about $22 million and had a nice client base starting. And then the meltdown happened in 2008.

He soon lost his job with Merrill Lynch. And his customers, having been burned by the stock market, no longer wanted his expertise.

Sanford: Also it was difficult because nobody had any appetite for risk anymore. That kind of did me in. I was between a rock and a hard place -- like lost business, can't get new business. I tried everything. I would organize seminars for attorneys and for other specialized groups. And nobody came.

Sanford looked unsuccessfully for work for two years. His wife took a job with the school system to secure health insurance. That's when Sanford took inspiration from his grandfather, who was the third national president of the AARP, then known as the American Association for Retired Persons.

Sanford: He went and traveled around the world espousing his philosophy that instead of retire and sleep on the couch and disappear, that you need to redirect and reinvent who you are. And become active, and become a giver not a taker, and become productive and become somebody that you can use your experience in your lifetime.

Music had been Sanford's passion since his days playing in a college band. His involuntary long-term unemployment allowed plenty of time for thinking about that.

Sanford: You know, when you work at something for a long time, your identity is so tied to what you do and it's very interesting how over a period of time when you're not doing that you're kind of saying "well, who am I again?" And it's a self-examination time that I think is quite healthy. And it also turns on your creative juices.

With those juices flowing, Sanford bought a state-of-the-art PA system and a keyboard and put together a repertoire of songs.

Sanford: I started working at those wine bars and I started having a great time. And I started feeling that identity of positive energy again.

Sanford singing "All of Me"

In the bars and nightclubs, he discovered his performances were little more than background music. He found a better alternative in doing one-hour shows in area retirement communities -- and he convinced his wife to join in.

Kathy Sanford: Thank you so much and thank for allowing us the opportunity to perform for you this evening. We are Fred and Kathy Sanford. Husband and wife for the last 37 years.

Fred: I love that generation, because they appreciate what you do. And we just have really come to like playing for that audience because they're so much more cultured and responsive.

Kathy and Fred singing "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy"

Sanford says reinvention is the only way to cope with global economic forces beyond his control.

Sanford: I've seen so many people who have become long-term unemployed, that have decided to do what's fun and do what they're passionate about and turning that into a business. We're seeing a tremendous resurgence of the entrepreneurial spirit and maybe necessity is the mother of invention here.

The retirement community gigs are infrequent, three or four a month. Sanford knows it'll never pay all the bills.

Fred: No. I'm a realist. What I look to do is just try and be productive. Carry my weight. Earn a living.

Sanford turns 60 this month. He and his wife live in a nice house thanks in part to his wife's school job and to a lifetime of avoiding debt and making good investments. Unemployment forced them to downsize their financial dreams for retirement, but they've been able to upsize their passion for what it will become.

In Orlando, Fla., I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

About the author

As head of Marketplace’s Washington, D.C. bureau, John Dimsdale provides insightful commentary on the intersection of government and money for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

Fred Sanford

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