ORLANDO, Fla. — Marcus Wells and Shirley Walker view their economic prospects from opposite ends of the age spectrum.
Wells, 25, was initially optimistic about his prospects for finding a new job after he was laid off as a systems analyst in January in San Jose, Calif. Now unemployment has begun to wear on him, and he believes his age has factored into his frustration.
"More experienced people are getting hired, and they're downgrading their skills to get the job," Wells said. "I feel like I'm competing with older workers, not college graduates. It wears on your confidence."
Walker, 58, lost her job running a nonprofit that helped minority women in business in Orlando and hasn't had any luck finding new work in the three months since.
"What they tell us is that they're looking for more mature and experienced workers, but they want us to work for less, or what they could pay younger people to do," she said recently outside an Orlando job fair. "Maybe younger people would be willing or able to accept lesser pay."
Would-be retirees have watched their savings dwindle and health care costs soar, while workers recently out of school and burdened by debt try to advance in careers that no longer have room for them.
The results show up on the map: Places with high concentrations of people in their late 20s or nearing what they thought would be their retirement age are feeling the recession the hardest, as measured by The Associated Press Economic Stress Index. The index assigns each county a score from 1 to 100, with higher numbers reflecting greater stress, based on its unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcy rates.
California's Santa Clara County, where Wells lives, registered 14.41 on the stress index in July, the most recent month for which figures are available, while Walker's Orange County, Fla., came in at 15.76, both well above the average county's 10.54.
The groups associated with the highest stress scores in each U.S. county are men and women between ages 25 and 29 and women over age 55. That doesn't necessarily mean having a high percentage of people in those groups causes a county's economic health to worsen, though the two appear to go hand in hand.
Experts said a variety of factors could be at play.
Young adults are more at risk for losing their jobs and homes in a recession, while people later in life are more likely to declare bankruptcy in order to protect their assets, said Tay McNamara, director of research at the Center on Aging and Work at Boston College.
"Last hired, first fired. Generally, that is very true," McNamara said.
Chanel Moore knows how that goes. The 25-year-old Orlando resident was laid off last year from a job in retail and has found herself competing with older workers in her jobs searches.
"I'm young, trying to get on my feet, and then you have people older than me who are already on their feet looking for jobs with more experience than me," Moore said.
Workers in the 25 to 34 age group have seen the most dramatic rise in unemployment during the past year compared to other age groups. Their unemployment rate went from 5.7 percent in July 2008 to 10 percent in July 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Compounding the pain for some young workers can be big bills from their careers as students. The average undergraduate finishes college with $17,700 in debt at four-year public schools and $22,375 in debt at four-year private schools. Also, student loan provider Sallie Mae reported this year that seniors graduated college with an average credit card debt of more than $4,100 in 2008, up from $2,900 four years earlier.
If there is a bright side for this age group, it's that they are less likely than older workers to have a family to feed or mortgage to pay.
"They're a pretty flexible group," said Tom Smith, a labor economist at Emory University. "They have fewer ties to a community and can travel or relocate."
Though younger people might be more likely to be laid off, older workers are less likely to recover from a layoff, experts said. Part of the reason stems from the myths surrounding older workers — that they're tough to train, more expensive and not comfortable with new technology, said Joseph Quinn, a professor of economics at Boston College.
"Once they do get laid off, they're really hosed," Quinn said.
Unemployment rates for older workers have increased in this recession more than in past recessions, and the unemployment rate for adults over age 65 is at an all-time high — 7 percent in July. That is up from 3.3 percent at the start of the recession in December 2007, but still below the national unemployment rate of 9.7 percent in August. The previous high was 6.6 percent in February 1977.
The rise in unemployment for older workers is partly the result of a mobile work force that hasn't stayed with a single employer for long periods of time as in the past, said Richard Johnson, a senior fellow at The Urban Institute in Washington.
"What seemed to protect older workers in the past is that they had a lot of seniority," Johnson said. "Now there is much more churning going on with these older workers. Even though they're older and experienced, they haven't been with the employer for very long."
Recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics back this up. The data show that workers over age 55 have found their share of mass layoffs increasing during the past decade — from just over 12 percent in 1999 to almost 18 percent in 2009.
Laid-off older workers are more likely this recession than in past recessions to try to find other jobs, rather than drop out of the labor market, since the tanking of the stock market last year has caused their retirement nest eggs to shrink, Johnson said.
Retirees, and near-retirees, also are more vulnerable to stock market fluctuations than in past decades as retirement benefits have shifted from defined-benefit pensions to 401(k) plans. About two-thirds of assets in 401(k) plans were invested in stocks in 2007, according to a study by the Investment Company Institute.
Estimates vary on how much was lost last year in retirement accounts, though most assessments have those accounts losing about a quarter to a third of their value.
Even though Medicare provides health insurance coverage to those age 65 and older, out-of-pocket medical expenditures increase with age. They were on average $2,900 during a two-year period for those ages 55 to 64 but grew to $4,400 for people age 85 and older, according to a federal Health and Retirement Study survey that was taken in 2002 before prescription drugs were covered by Medicare.
Walker, the Orlando executive, worried recently that she might have to take any job that becomes available to her, no matter if it fits her career path or salary expectations that come with an MBA.
"If you've been out there working, and you have a career, now it's like starting a career all over again," she said.
Out in California, former systems analyst Wells is living with his girlfriend, who supports the couple on her income, and he is looking for jobs outside of his field. Recently, he considered joining the military.
"I'm looking for part-time, temporary ... I'm looking for everything," Wells said. "I don't have another year of emergency funds to tough it out. I'm getting desperate. I'm 25 and I need to start making it happen."