After working for eight and a half years at IBM, Nancy Ikeda, 55, lost her job 13 months ago. She had lived in Binghamton, N.Y., since her daughters were in high school, but after spending most of the year looking in vain for another job, Ikeda decided she couldn’t stay any longer.

“There’s just nothing” in Binghamton, she says, because the major employers aren’t hiring. Ikeda had watched people being laid off at IBM during the time she worked there. “They sent the entire department overseas,” she says, “and finally got to me.” The company’s workforce was reduced from over 4,000 in 2002 to 1,300 when Ikeda lost her job in February of 2009.  “Lockheed Martin laid off a quarter of their people, and SUNY Binghamton had a hiring freeze.”

The entire job market is shrinking. From the 1950s to the 1970s, jobs in the private sector increased about 3.5 percent annually, but the last ten years witnessed a meager growth of 0.9 percent per year. As a result, millions of middle-class workers left jobless for six months and longer are becoming what New York Times writer Peter Goodman calls the “new poor”—people who enjoyed a comfortable life but are now dependent on public services. Many may never recover their previous status.

Unskilled workers undoubtedly have the hardest time finding jobs today: many of the manufacturing jobs that fueled the engine of prosperity in the decades following World War II no longer exist in the U.S.: they have moved to Asia and Latin America. Unions have grown weaker and so are no longer able to protect workers as they once did. The corporate focus on the bottom line mandates efficiency at the expense of workers: whenever possible, expensive manpower is replaced by machinery, and even white-collar work is moved overseas, where wages are lower. In the past decade alone, 5.6 million manufacturing jobs have been lost to automation, Goodman reports.

But Ikeda has an M.B.A. “You’d think I’d be employable,” she says.

You’d think—but Ikeda belongs to the cohort of women 45 to 64 years old, and they have been hit particularly hard in this recession.

The Department of Labor reports that in the last severe recession of 1983, this group comprised 7 percent of people who were unemployed six months or longer. Last year, however, that figure doubled to 14 percent. Professionals are hardly better off than their sisters with lesser skills. In fact, a recent study by the nonprofit research organization Catalyst found that not only did women MBAs  frequently start out at lower pay levels than similarly qualified male colleagues, but their career trajectories and compensation still had not caught up years later.

To make matters worse, recovery from recessions is taking longer and longer. An analysis of data from the Department of Labor shows that jobs lost before 1990 were regained within 21 months, but after the 1990 slump, recovery took 31 months, and almost four years passed before the jobs lost in 2001 were recovered. Yet in his widely discussed piece in The Atlantic, Don Peck argues that that last statistic is deceptive, because the percentage of the population that is working hasn’t returned to what it was before 2001 (since there are fewer jobs available).

Peck probes the destructive and lasting effects of pervasive joblessness on American society. The average time a person remains unemployed is now over six months, the longest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began recording the data. Peck’s extensive research leads him to conclude that the Great Recession will not only contribute to personal misery through the loss of self-esteem, which leads to depression, domestic violence, alcoholism and drug abuse, but will rend the social fabric as divorce and crime rates climb as a result.

The statistics are depressing to read; they are devastating to experience personally.

After months of futilely looking for work, Nancy Ikeda sold her house in October, put the contents in storage, packed her two cats into the car and drove to New York City in hopes of finding more opportunities for employment. She moved in with her older daughter, Margaret, who is 27, single, and lives in a tiny studio apartment in Staten Island. (Ikeda represents the flip side of a trend: 10 percent of young adults have had to move back with their parents, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.)

“My daughter is okay with me living with her,” says Ikeda, but “I don’t know how long it’s going to last. It gets a little crowded. It’s a little bit tight.” Ikeda sleeps on the kitchen floor on some mats. “I have a delightful bed in that storage unit I would love to sleep in some day. It’s a queen-sized bed,” she says wistfully. “I can live on unemployment and actually help her out a little with her rent. So it frees up some of her money. Financially, I can make it on almost nothing if I live with her.”

Accustomed to a particular accounting software, Ikeda has found that a company using a similar program doesn’t have to hire someone like her—who needs just a bit of training to adjust to the new system—because there are so many people applying who are already fully familiar with it. For the time being, she has a temporary job with the Census Bureau. It pays well enough, but at best, it will last only until September, and there are no benefits.

Like unemployment, lack of health insurance is a problem that many women over 45 are facing, as we noted last week. “My huge worry is that my COBRA runs out in August. I’m not destitute. I have money in the bank. I’ve saved money all my life,” says Ikeda. “I’m terrified if I don’t have health insurance that something will happen. I’ll lose my life savings.” There’s no friends-and-neighbors backup for health insurance,  Ikeda added. “When I lost my job, everybody was saying, ‘You want a bag of groceries?’ They were trying to help me out. But nobody will say to me, ‘Oh, I’ll pick up $1,000 for your appendectomy.’” And Ikeda makes too much to qualify for the health insurance subsidized by New York State.

Ikeda also had to return her laptop to IBM when she left. Her younger daughter gave her an extra computer she wasn’t using, but that one’s in storage. Ikeda uses Margaret’s computer while her daughter’s at work, but when she returns, it’s a battle: “she’s a computer nut too—she’d want to be on the computer.” Ikeda hasn’t taken the other computer out of storage because there’s no room for a desk in the studio apartment.

“At some point, if I were to get a real job,” Ikeda dreams, “maybe we’ll get a two-bedroom together. But that hasn’t happened yet, and with the census job ending in September, I can’t risk moving right now.”

Margaret is enjoying her mother’s stay, and is even reaping some benefits. “She’s a huge help with cooking and apartment chores,” she says. “I’m kind of a slob,” she acknowledges, “so it’s good for me.” After years of living on her own, Margaret doesn’t mind letting her mother know when she’ll be home. “It’s kind of comforting to have that backup,” and to find dinner ready when she comes home. “So my life’s changed, but not as much as it would be if I had to pack up and move home if I couldn’t find a job.”

Although both women are making the best of a difficult situation, there have been rough spots. Margaret remembers when her mother was “really stressed” when she was selling the house and not able to find a job. “That really bummed me out, because that’s very not like her. She’s very go-getting, super-optimistic. The job’s a big part of her life. She’s always been very proud of her work.” Margaret’s very happy that her mother is taking paralegal classes on a grant from the unemployment office. “She’s much more herself doing that, being engaged. She’s not the kind of person to be happy sitting at home watching afternoon TV.”

Ikeda admits that she’s succumbed at times: “You go through periods when you get depressed. You don’t bother looking, and then you get going again.” Job-hunting can be demoralizing. “There’s very little feedback, and it’s very lonely. It’s you and the computer, basically. There’s plenty of other people in the same situation,” she knows, “but still, it’s a solitary effort. You don’t walk— there’s no door-to-door any more. It’s totally done by computer.”

At least until September, life for Nancy Ikeda has regained a certain regularity. She can enjoy playing Scrabble with Margaret, explore the Big Apple, and send out résumés with just a little less anxiety. And like many in her over-40 cohort in the job market, hope that the economy picks up in the meantime.

Trained as a medievalist, Diane Vacca taught medieval literature, Spanish and Italian at several universities before becoming a journalist with specialties in politics, the arts and New York City. Her work can also be found at and the New York City biweekly Chelsea Now, where she covers everything from education and public housing to landmark designation and the arts.

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  • MamaRed June 18, 2011 at 7:15 pm


    Thank you for your kind words. My passion is helping women who have lived through all the crud and crapola, the joy and happiness and who are sitting on the other side of “do for everybody else” and wondering what the h*ll happened to their dreams and desires.

    Many tell me, and I fall into it too, “right, like I can dream now.” If you look at the history books, many businesses started in the midst of a depression or downturn.

    For the record, I get discouraged on almost a daily basis. So it isn’t that my only pair of glasses are rose colored. It is that the other options don’t seem like something

    Entrepreneurship may sound scary at first blush and honestly, I don’t think it is near as scary as many of the things we’ve done and live through to reach this age.

    We won’t fire ourselves and we know how to work hard (although truthfully, sometimes my boss might oughta fire me!).

    Personally, I don’t think your approach IS simplistic. In many ways, it is as hard as it gets because it means you’re in charge. No one else. You.

    You get to choose your attitude, your approach, your whatever.

    And networking is, in my opinion, one of the things women CAN do if we can accept help and accept that there is something good waiting.

    And Diane, I’m glad you wrote the article and appreciate all you’re doing to help things move forward in this world.

    If I can be of service. please let me know.

    WIth love

  • Diane Vacca June 18, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    As much as a writer enjoys receiving comments on her work, it’s painful for me to read these heart-rending accounts. Having impeccable credentials and invaluable experience and yet being overlooked or rejected because of our age is a very bitter pill to swallow. In the 15 months since this article was published, the percentage of women over 45 who have been unemployed for more than six months has risen. MamaRed’s comment spurred me to write about that on my blog (
    Networking, as drpatallen suggests, can help in unexpected ways.
    I applaud and admire the courage of MamaRed and others like her who find the strength and the will to carry on and find new ways of supporting themselves and their families.
    Good luck to all

  • drpatallen June 18, 2011 at 12:02 pm

    This is a wonderful comment, MamaRed. We women in the other half of life have wisdom and know how to survive. I agree that owning one’s own business is scary but at least you won’t fire yourself when times get tough. We need to be here to mentor other women in this lifestage who have been cast out and cast adrift. Let’s all make a committment to set up networking opportunities and to support the women in our demographic who have the courage to create micro-businesses. Networking: a contact sport someone said. Find an idea, find the fuel to fire it up and enter the arena of survival. It might not be the job you had. It might not be the job you wanted, but make it a job you have. And, I know this may sound simplistic so I urge other readers to give me an earful!

  • MamaRed June 17, 2011 at 9:09 am

    My heart goes out to each and every person who is in this situation. If my husband had not been working last year, we would have most likely been living on the streets because I was too ill to work. Midway through my recovery my hubbie was laid off…which made for some very interesting times!

    I’ve owned my own business for over 20 years and know that isn’t the route for everyone. I’m wondering if that isn’t a more likely possibility than corporate employment these days?

    I’ve got a “combo business” that I’m rebuilding after being sick for so long. One is a network marketing business…and it is one of the few areas where your age doesn’t matter in terms of rewards. Our oldest promoter is 87 and one of my inspirations is a couple in their late 60s/early 70s who have recovered their lost retirement and are moving forward.

    I don’t have the energy the 20-somethings have and I do enjoy the possibilities.

    The other part of my business is coaching/speaking, a deep passion that I’m looking forward to renewing. Time will tell what goes on in that arena.

    So do you think it is possible that we in the over 50 group could get back on our feet using some other options like this? Or am I seeing life through tinted lenses? (Believe me, 2010 was a year of reassing EVERYTHING!).

    Much love

    What about others

  • DWG November 12, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    I also got “resourced” from IBM after 12 years. Sadly, I am in the same demographic — over 50, two Masters degrees – and I believe that professional jobs will be no more at middle age. I have found employment – but as a telemarketer and office assistant. The latter job I actually quit – because the pay was so low and I was working six days per week. I have not collected any unemployment – and I’m not opposed to being under-employed again…However, I need fairness. It has been a rough go these past two years. Some days – it really is so hard you wonder where people over 45 will be working?

  • Jean November 6, 2010 at 10:40 am

    DS I too am an unemployed MBA but after I made a choice to leave a great paying job with long commute to take slightly less with broader responsibilities for a much smaller firm, very convenient to home. I was let go in 8 months as the husband and wife owners thought I was too corporate. Yes, I agree–if that means a budget, metrics, and accountability. I made a mistake in thinking the two were really open to changing the way they did business and I think they had expectations an MBA could perform miracles without rocking their little boat. Oh well–we made one bad choice over our careers. We took a risk, and it didn’t work out. It speaks of our courage and confidence. Don’t blame your husband. We all make choices that don’t always pan out as planned, but don’t let this come between the most important thing in your life–the people who love you. Ironically I read The Grapes of Wrath earlier in the year before my lay-off. I reflect on the hardships and courage of the characters and understand the truth they portray. We too shall overcome and life might not be quite the same but we will be stronger and smarter for it. Take heart and good luck everyone!

  • D. Sanders June 2, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    I am also in this situation. Mine is partially because I quit my job to get married and move to another town. I had a great job with a well established corporation in a large city. My now husband convinced me that he had a new position lined up for me in the city he and I now live in, his hometown. He said that a friend had a position at his company and convinced me to leave my job and move here. After we married, the television company I was to begin working for downsized and left me with no position before I had a chance to start. That was over six months ago. We had married in December and I didn’t begin my job search until sometime in March after finding out the new position was no longer there. Now I have been on my computer daily applying for jobs. I am 52 and I feel that my age is a big contributor to my not getting interviews. I have a great resume and wonderful letters of referral from my previous employer. Most people look at me and think I’m at least ten years younger than I am. The problem is, I never get the opportunity to meet them in person. This situation is now causing problems with my marriage. I resent my husband for convincing me to leave and marry before I was ready. I’ve even started looking for positions back in my home town where my family is located but with no luck there either. My self esteem is going way down. There are days when I feel hopeless. I wish I had never left my old job but I have to believe that something will come to me through the friends and family I have back home. I can very much sympathize with any woman (or man) in this position. I wish you all luck!

  • Holli Rossi May 13, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    Yes, it does seem that middle-aged women are vulnerable in this economy. I was in the job market a few years ago and believe that I was rejected because of my age in a few instances. I may be in the market again. Though I have had interviews, I haven’t found anything that really fits. I had a second interview but heard nothing.

  • Eddie Vega March 9, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    The story of Nancy Ikeda, a middle-aged woman from upstate New York, offers a powerful and poignant illustration of the very real damage this terrible recession has caused. After 13 cruel months of unemployment, Ikeda was sleeping on the floor of her daughter’s kitchen. Despite an MBA, she remans out of work. Reporter Diane Vacca has brought her to life while providing the broader swathe of economic data that show Ikeda is not alone in her suffering.