Brian Blaschke thought he had positioned himself well to survive the economic downturn. A construction industry veteran, he switched careers in 2007 into construction defect investigation for an insurance company. Fourteen months later, he was laid off anyway.
He hasn't brought home a full-time salary or benefits since November 2008.
"I've picked up bits and pieces of work," said Blaschke, 54, who lives in West Sacramento. "I had a six-month contract with a company. But mostly, I've done handyman services. I put a flier out, and I work a day here and a day there. I make ends meet."
For baby boomers, especially those in their 50s who are too young to qualify for Social Security benefits, today's tough economic reality is at odds with their long-held job expectations. They're supposed to be in the prime of their careers, their peak earning years.
Instead, they're fighting simply to stay employed.
"People are looking for job security, but it's a different game now," said Sacramento workplace expert Carleen MacKay. "And they're scared to death.
"You can't hope for the last train back to the good times."
Urban Institute research shows that the unemployment rate for both men and women in their 50s ticked up last year, with older men lacking college degrees being hardest hit.
People 55 and older who have been laid off take longer than younger people to find new work 52 weeks, as opposed 35, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and many find they have to cobble together two or three jobs to make a decent income.
What's worse, the recession and the nation's shifting demographics bring a harsh mixed message for baby boomers at midlife: They can't find work today, but they won't be able to retire tomorrow.
There are simply too few jobs today and too many younger workers willing to work for less money, making the job search a nightmare for baby boomers who have endured layoffs.
But by 2025, experts say, there will be too many jobs that need to be filled and too few younger workers available to take them.
Good thing that more than 80 percent of baby boomers (currently aged 48 to 65) say they want to continue working well past what used to be considered retirement age.
"The generation after the boomers is small, so more boomers will need to work to have the economy function," said AARP California spokesman Mark Beach. "That's just demographics.
"Corporate culture hasn't necessarily caught up yet, but workers who are 50 and older will be a critical part of the workplace going forward."
The numbers are already on the rise, if only because the baby boom generation is so large. Fiftysomethings accounted for almost one-third of employed Americans last year, says the BLS, up from 20 percent in 1996.
Yet their role in today's workplace remains in flux.
On top of the 3.4 million Americans in their 50s who lost their jobs in 2010, according to the Sloan Center on Aging and Work, millions more were able to find only part-time work and were considered underemployed.
"If you're not needed full time, you won't be hired full time," said MacKay. "Too many people in the job market are looking for what used to be, not for what is."
Since a layoff in 2008, Web application developer Charles Russell has had a few contracts for short-term work. He hasn't yet found steady employment and worries that he'll lose his Citrus Heights home to foreclosure.
"I'm underemployed right now," said Russell, 55. "I'll work for myself, or I'll work for somebody else. I don't care where the check comes from, as long as it's a check."
Roseville communications executive Cynthia Moore has been laid off four times since 2000, most recently in June 2009. Last November, she took a position as a program director for a Sacramento nonprofit.
"Being laid off was a very challenging time," said Moore, 51. "It forced me to step back and look at my goals in life. I had to evaluate my quality of life.
"I wouldn't downplay the challenges, because a lot of people are still going through them. But for me, it put things in perspective. It was a kind of gift."
That's what Brian Blaschke has decided, too.
Unemployment has been wrenching for him: His marriage ended, he says, and besides doing handyman work to survive, he had to liquidate his 401(k).
But now he's starting his own company, Waterstone Construction Services, to install solar water heaters for restaurants and retirement homes. He needs a steady income, but more than that, he wants to resume a meaningful career.
"I'm creating my own," he said. "I've given this a lot of thought, and I'm taking action.
"I don't need a corporate job. I don't trust corporations any more. I may not make my old salary, but I'm in charge of my own destiny."