Tackling the Job Search

After some 40 years in the business world, Gordon Steen never thought his morning would start outdoors with hyenas, elephants and monkeys.

But that was more than six years ago, before he had closed his 17-year-old shipping-and-packing business. While contemplating his next career move, he became a customer-service representative at the Baltimore Zoo.

“That was a tough job, being out in the sun all day long,” Steen, now 65, said of the seasonal work that ended with winter’s onset. “But I thought it would be interesting, and it was — and the economy hadn’t tanked yet.”

But in the late summer of 2008, the country plunged into a deep economic recession, and Steen soon found himself doing jobs he had never considered as he searched for an elusive full-time position. In the past few years, he has worked part time as a writer, researcher, photographer and leasing consultant.

Struggling senior adults are just part of the national unemployment picture.

In August, the country’s unemployment rate stood at 8.1 percent, or about 12.5 million people, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Economists often accompany such statistics with comments about the uncounted “under-employed,” or those who have stopped searching. Among Americans ages 65 and older, there were 493,000 unemployed people seeking work, up from 480,000 a year earlier, according to the Department of Labor.

Those seniors face some challenges specific to older adults. Although age discrimination is illegal, prospective employers are put off by what they perceive as the seniors’ potential skill deficits, fears about higher health-care costs and concern about longevity in the position. 

“With so many of the jobs I am applying for, they involve technology and the people applying are in their 20s and are three times faster,” Steen said. “At the same time, I am very adaptive to learning, and in fact, my ability to learn is a lot better than I thought it would be.”

Jeffrey Davidson, 67, understands what Steen is up against. The online LinkedIn profile of the Los Angeles-area professional exudes skills and experience — “Professional Consultant/Public Speaker/Trainer specializing in PowerPoint, Excel, Word & WordPerfect at PC Consultants” — but it’s still been an uphill battle.

“There are 4,000 people looking for four jobs in any given vocation,” Davidson said. “I will honestly say that right now I’m not trying as hard as I was. It’s a combination of frustration — what I’m looking for isn’t available, I don’t know who to contact. I’m trying to put the word out, nothing’s happening.”

After seeing his consulting work dwindle in recent years, Davidson turned to Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) of Los Angeles for moral support among like-minded people at a weekly group.

“Prior to the onset of the recession at the end of 2008, I don’t think even 5 percent of the individuals seeking services with our agency were over 65,” said Jay Soloway, training and education director for JVS Los Angeles. Today it’s between 15 to 20 percent, he said.

For Jewish vocational service agencies across the United States, the challenges facing seniors have not gone unnoticed. Some JVS operations have seen increases as high as 20 to 30 percent in the senior category, according to Genie Cohen, CEO of the International Association of Jewish Vocational Services. Her operation provides technical, informational and communications support to 28 JVS operations in Canada, Israel and the United States.

“Everybody is struggling to find help and programs for this part of the community,” Cohen said.

Jewish Family Services in Columbus, Ohio, has a “2 Young 2 Retire” program that focuses on financial needs, staying healthy and “encore career choices with the goal of discovering work on your own terms related to personal values, passions and aspirations.” Jewish Vocational Service of Metro-
West in New Jersey runs the Center for Creative Maturity, which covers people older than 45 and targets subgroups such as those with disabilities ages 55 and older, older refugees and immigrants, and even nursing home residents. In Louisville, Ky., the Mature Work program of Jewish Family & Career Services covers assistance with returning to the workforce and developing strategies to enter new careers.

In Los Angeles, JVS started Mature Ability, a program aimed at people 55 and older. The agency also created the eight-week Bank Work$ program, which guides people toward jobs in banking, often as tellers.

“We get into issues of the realities of working today with younger supervisors and maintaining self-esteem,” Soloway said. He is concerned that some people will not take such jobs as they look for something more lucrative and prestigious, which in turn prolongs the job search.

Other issues abound, points out Tracey Paliath, economic services director of Baltimore’s Jewish Community Services. Even one’s e-mail address — or lack thereof — can be a detriment.

“You have to explain to them that they have to apply online and that paper is sort of past,” she said. “And if they have an e-mail that’s aol.com, that sends up a red flag” because some see it as an outdated system.

The challenge is not just teaching people the new methods of job hunting — the Internet did not exist the last time some older Americans were job hunting — but the reality that works in their fields may not return.

Paliath says that about 40 percent of her colleagues’ clients are 50 and older. “We have had people in their 70s and even a couple in their 80s,” she said.

Not everyone is working to recapture what once were retirement funds, she added. Some people are picking up a mortgage or health-care costs for children and grandchildren in difficult economic straits.

Despite the subtle and overt roadblocks, Steen, who has an adult son living at home — “but at least he’s got a job” — is not giving up.

“They talk about the hidden job market, which is people you know who know someone else,” Steen said. “That’s kind of what’s hidden behind the green door, and it takes some imagination to open it.” 

Two American economists win Nobel Prize

Alvin Roth and Lloyd Shapley, American economists with ties to Israeli universities, won the Nobel Prize for economics.

The professors won the prize, called the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, for their research in how to make economic markets work better by more precisely matching supply with demand.

Shapley, 89, used game theory to study the problem. Roth, 60, helped redesign the medical residents’ match program to make it more efficient for young doctors.

The prize was announced Oct. 15.

Shapley was awarded an honorary doctorate from Hebrew University in 1986 and has worked with Israeli Nobel Prize laureate Robert Auman, who won his Nobel for his work with game theory.

Roth, who is Jewish, was a visiting professor of economics at the Technion in Haifa in 1986, and a visiting professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University in 1995. Roth frequently visits Israel, Auman said.

“I have been hoping for this for years,” Auman said of the award to Roth and Shapley. “It is absolutely the best choice that could be made.”

Roth is a professor at Harvard University in Boston, but will be leaving for Stanford University, where he is currently a visiting professor of economics, at the end of the year. Shapley is professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

Explaining the Argentine Enigma

Several years ago, economist and sociologist Paul Samuelson proposed dividing the world into four categories: the rich countries, the poor countries, Japan and Argentina. Everyone knows the state of rich countries and poor countries. However, no one understands why Japan is doing so well and Argentina so badly.

These days, experts around the world are biting their nails trying to find an explanation for the Argentine enigma. At the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina was the seventh-richest country in the world. It was considered the breadbasket of the world. And so it remained until a decade after World War II. For European emigrants seeking a better future, it scarcely mattered if the boat they were boarding was headed for New York or Buenos Aires. Both were golden paths toward hope, freedom and growth.

The Argentine Jewish community began to organize itself at the end of the 19th century. The French philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch invested a great deal of money to support the resettlement of persecuted Jews in Argentina’s rich agricultural regions. An Argentine version of the Jewish cowboy was born, the Jewish gaucho. The writer Alberto Gerchunoff immortalized them in a book of admirable literary breadth bearing this very title. It was published nearly a century ago, in 1910. Even Theodor Herzl, in his seminal work "The Jewish State," mentioned Argentina as a possible homeland for the Jewish people.

The Argentine Jewish community grew rapidly and became the largest and most vibrant in Latin America. When Israeli sociologist Arie Tartakower visited the country in the 1950s, he was impressed by the dynamism of the community’s institutional life and the vigor of its educational system. He said it constituted the best Jewish communal model in the entire Diaspora. Jews were involved in science, law, art and the media. First-generation Argentine Jews became national figures. Jewish poets, composers and singers contributed to Argentine culture, even enriching the tango.

Politically, Jews imported their ideological trends from pre-Holocaust Europe. They began to participate in Jewish and non-Jewish institutions, in synagogues and in secular organizations. In the middle of the 20th century, Argentine Jewry’s Zionist ideals were evidenced by the community’s strong support during the crises weathered by Israel and the Jewish people. The participation was massive, honest and generous.

This healthy Jewish climate was nevertheless confronted with a latent anti-Semitism. The wonders of integration were sullied by the first pogrom in the Americas, which took place in 1919 during Argentina’s so-called "tragic week." However, the fear that those deadly events would repeat themselves did not weaken the resolve of Argentina’s Jews to continue developing their communal life and pursuing their integration into Argentine society.

The Perón presidency was an ambivalent period for Argentine Jewry. On the one hand, Juan Perón guaranteed Jewish rights and established a friendly relationship with Israel. On the other hand, his administration was complacent toward Nazi war criminals. The rightist nationalism that accompanied Perónism began to create problems in the 1960s, after an Israeli commando team captured Adolf Eichmann. The military dictatorships, especially the last one, were decidedly cruel toward Jews. And there are still pockets of ignorant and dangerous fanatics who from time to time desecrate cemeteries and who may have contributed to the bombings of the Israeli embassy in 1992 and the AMIA Jewish community center in 1994.

Through history, one can see a parallel between the fate of Argentina and the fate of its Jews. Until the middle of the 20th century, Argentineans were a successful and optimistic people. In the second half of the 20th century, however, a decadence set in, slowly at first and then quickening. Argentina collapsed because of authoritarianism and corruption. The Jewish community was no more the model touted by Arie Tartakower. The educational system, which every year reached new milestones, started to decay. Economic problems, which were never seen as an obstacle, started to weigh heavily. And some unthinkable developments took place, most notably an atmosphere of suspicion regarding the loyalty and honesty of our communal leaders, which was very worrisome and disillusioning.

Until about three years ago, Argentine emigration was motivated exclusively by politics. Persecution at the hand of the dictatorships prompted thousands of scientists, artists, educators, journalists and even students to flee. The sad reality of the new emigration is that it is not due to politics, but to the economic situation. For the first time, Argentineans are abandoning this land because there is no work, not even food.

Some sort of cycle is coming to a close. A century ago, despair prompted massive emigration from the Old World to Argentina. Now despair is causing massive emigration, this time from Argentina.

The change is reflected in Argentine aliya, the emigration of Argentine Jews to Israel. In the past Argentine aliya was undertaken for idealistic reasons. Tens of thousands of Jews filled kibbutzim and Israeli towns to contribute to the national resurrection effort. But now they do it because they don’t see any future here for themselves and their children.

The reasons for this general decadence are difficult to discern. Several months ago, I published a book whose title could be interpreted as a joke, "The Atrocious Charm of Being Argentine." Contrary to the fears of my publisher, the book was a hit and has remained on top of the best-seller list since its publication. The people, far from being annoyed by it, are reading and discussing it with passion. It is good news to see that we Argentineans are leaving behind us our old and odious arrogance. We want clear diagnoses in order to find the right remedy.

Argentina’s difficulties can be overcome if the corruption and transgression are not protected by immunity. Illegality is the worst evil in a society that respects the law.

Jews suffer, like other Argentineans, from the "corralito," the limits imposed on money withdrawals from banks. The country is going through one of its worst crises, fueled by the severe economic depression. But if there is international comprehension and if the decaying trends can be progressively reversed, Argentina will wake up. Its "hardware" — natural and human resources — are intact. What is missing is the "software," the management.

And this holds true for all Argentineans — including the Jews.

Marcos Aguinis is an Argentine writer and commentator. He is the author of eight novels, including "The Saga of the Marrano," available in Spanish and Hebrew. This article is reprinted with permission of The Forward.