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Over 50, Female and Jobless Even as Others Return to Work

Chettie McAfee, 58, of Seattle, was laid off in 2007 from a job she had held for 30 years and has not been employed since. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

The latest signs of an improving economy were good enough to help persuade the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates for the first time in nearly a decade. But the better job market is not good enough to land Chettie McAfee a job.

Laid off at the start of the recession from the diagnostic testing firm in Seattle where she spent more than three decades, Ms. McAfee, 58, has not worked since 2007. “I’ve been applying and applying and applying,” said Ms. McAfee, who has relied on her savings and family to get by as she fights off attempts to foreclose on her home. At interviews, she said, “They ask, ‘Why has it been so long?’”

At 5 percent, the jobless rate may be close to what economists consider full employment, but that headline figure doesn’t capture the challenges still facing millions of Americans who have yet to regain their footing in the workplace.

Ms. McAfee is part of a group that has found the postrecession landscape particularly difficult to navigate: women over 50.

That is especially striking because many recent economic and social trends — the decline of manufacturing and the rise of health care, the advance of educated women into professions and jobs once mostly occupied by men — were seen as harmful to working-age men and advantageous for the growing ranks of working women.

But many of these older women now earn far less and use many fewer skills than they did before. Others have been left stranded without any job for months or even years. Some have given up the search altogether.

A new study on long-term unemployment from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that the prospects for women over 50 darkened after the Great Recession. In 2006-7, before the downturn hit, less than a quarter of the unemployed in this group had been out of work for more than six months. By 2012-13, older jobless women accounted for half of the long-term unemployed.

The employment picture has definitely improved since then, economists point out, and more older women have managed to return to work. Still, the waves from the recession, which ended six and a half years ago, continue to upend many people who were cast aside during and immediately after the storm.

“How long people take to find a new job has been much longer than in previous recessions,” said Alexander Monge-Naranjo, a co-author of the St. Louis Fed study. “The natural question is, Why?”

There are no simple answers.

When it comes to women over 50, one theory that makes sense to Mr. Monge-Naranjo is that those who dropped out of the labor force to take care of children when they were younger can’t easily get back in. “They did not see that the labor market was going to be so tough and it’s taking quite some time to go back to normal,” he said.

That has been Lynn Colafrancesco’s experience. Once a vice president at a reinsurance company, Ms. Colafrancesco, now 59 and divorced, started determinedly looking for a full-time job three years ago. As soon as she mentioned that she had taken off time to care for two children, she could see in the interviewer’s face that she had been summarily dismissed.

“Now I don’t even mention about my kids,” Ms. Colafrancesco said. “They don’t want to hear that.” To make ends meet, she works as a substitute teacher a couple of days a week and rents out rooms in her house in Fairfield, Conn.

Certainly older workers — male and female — must contend with age discrimination.

“I have been told in interviews that they want somebody younger,” said Karen Lamkin, a lawyer with 25 years of experience who lives outside Boston and has been out of work for three years. “It does not matter that I would be satisfied with the salary for a junior position.”

A shrinking network of professional contacts, and possibly fewer cutting-edge skills, can also hamper older workers in the job hunt, said Connie Wanberg, a professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. In a world where networking is done more and more online, they may be less adept at the latest techniques. Older workers can also be pickier, Ms. Wanberg said — more reluctant to relocate away from family, for example, or to do certain kinds of jobs.

The question is whether these factors operate even more powerfully for women than for men, Ms. Wanberg said. Women, who are much more likely to be burdened with caregiving responsibilities, even as they age, may require more flexibility in their schedules, for example.

Some simply do not want to settle.

Lynn Colafrancesco, 59, started looking for a full-time job three years ago. To make ends meet, she works as a substitute teacher a couple of days a week and rents out rooms in her house in Fairfield, Conn. Credit Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times

With her house and car paid off, and some investment income coming in, Susan McNeill Spuhler, 52, an engineer who was laid off in April 2013, said she was waiting for the right fit. She has seen friends in more desperate financial straits “take any job and then spiral down” because the job or the company was subpar.

Ms. Spuhler and others now in their 50s, 60s and 70s were among the waves of women who entered the paid labor force in record numbers, changing the face of the American economy. Even as men’s participation rate in the labor force plunged, women — especially those 55 and older — have for the most part continued to join.

But while older workers generally have lower unemployment rates than younger ones, those who find themselves jobless, for whatever reason, tend to find themselves stuck there for longer. And women 55 and older who lose a job have more trouble than men getting another one, according to Sara E. Rix, an analyst and former senior researcher for AARP, the lobbying organization for older Americans.

“Older displaced women are less likely than displaced men of the same ages to be re-employed and more likely to have left the labor force,” she noted in a recent analysis.

The type of occupations dominated by women may play a role as well. For example, “public teacher employment is still below what it was in 2007,” said Elise Gould, senior economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute. “And that definitely disproportionately affects women.”

As for Americans hovering around or past the traditional retirement age, some have remained in the work force because they want to. Others have no choice: The financial crisis may have wiped out much of their retirement savings and equity in their home.

Older women are frequently in worse financial situations because their work histories are spottier — often because they took time off to care for children — or they were dependent to some extent on husbands who may no longer be alive or whom they divorced. Even those who worked steadily often earned less than men, resulting in smaller Social Security and pension benefits and less savings.

While unskilled workers are at the greatest disadvantage when it comes to finding work, many older women with impressive educational credentials and résumés tell discouraging tales of being turned down for job after job.

Julie Woodbury, a 57-year-old Army veteran who lives in a suburb of Minneapolis, went back to earn a doctorate in communications after leaving the military. “It’s extremely frustrating,” Dr. Woodbury said. “I just can’t find something permanent.” She is not counted among the long-term unemployed, but finds herself cycling on and off the jobless rolls, as one short-term contract ends and she waits for another to begin.

Meryl Manthey, 63, pointed out that she was not counted among the jobless either. “I’m making zero income, but I’m considered self-employed,” said Ms. Manthey, who got her real estate license when she moved back to her mother’s homestead in Wantagh, N.Y., from California three years ago after a divorce. The cross-country resettlement followed years of frustrated job searching after she was laid off from her job doing web-based training.

As for Ms. McAfee, she now recognizes that it is all too easy for almost anybody to fall over the edge. “I did everything you’re supposed to do,” she said. “Now I’m on the other side of the rainbow, and it’s not pretty over here.”

Over 50, Female and Jobless Even as Others Return to Work