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Image: Michael Blattman
CNBC
Michael Blattman was laid off from his job as a senior vice president for a student loan company more than two years ago and still hasn’t found a new position.
CNBC
updated 3/4/2010 1:12:07 PM ET 2010-03-04T18:12:07

Not so long ago, Michael Blattman lived in the upscale Washington, D.C., suburb of Potomac, Md., earning $225,000 a year as senior vice president for a student loan company. As he reached his 50s, it never really occurred to him that his job wouldn’t last forever.

“To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really go there,” he said. “Yeah, there was always a risk. Everything in business is a risk.”

In January 2008, Blattman, along with 500 other employees, was laid off by his company. With an $188,000 severance, he wasn’t worried at first.

“The barometer was always something like five or six months until you landed something comparable,” he said. “So I figured, ‘Oh, OK, six months?’ OK, I could do this for six months.  And find the next one. Well, there was no next one.”

As his generation confronted an economic storm of historic proportions, Blattman found himself humbled — and living in a one-room apartment. After applying for 600 openings and getting only three interviews, he was still looking after two years. 

His old boss recently gave him a stark assessment of his prospects.

“He said, ‘How’s it going?’” Blattman recalled. “I said, ‘Nobody’s talking to me.’  And he says ‘That’s because you’re an old white guy.’ And that stopped me in my tracks.”

Blattman gets some solace from the knowledge that he’s far from alone. More than 4 million baby boomers are unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For many, retirement at 65 is no longer an option.

Facing shrinking nest eggs and mounting bills, they need to work, but they wonder if anyone will hire them again.

“The hardest thing each day is to get up and say, ‘OK, what am I going to do today?’ It’s a constant cheerleading effort every day. The thing is, I’m the cheerleader. And I am the team.  So I’m all in one.”

Blattman starts every day checking out online job sites and sending out resumes for jobs that pay much less than his old salary.

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“I have applied for jobs that are one-fourth, one-third of my previous income level,” he said. “And I would have been thrilled to get it. There are just too many of me and everyone else out there. I just wish there was a place for us, to kind of land.”

All the want, the wishing, can lead to worry and to stress.

“People who are in this position can have heart attacks, could get strokes, because of the intense stress levels,” said Blattman.

For Blattman, the chronic stress has induced him to grind his teeth, which has led to several root canals, damaged his implants, and worn away his bank balance. When his health insurance expired in August, he was left with $13,000 in out-of-pocket expenses.

It’s a double whammy: no job and no health insurance. Many boomers are in far worse shape than Blattman. Some have turned to free clinics. It’s just one indication that the health care crisis is really an economic crisis.  And for the boomers it’s only going to get tougher, according to Harvard financial historian Niall Ferguson.

“If they’ve done their homework, then they’ll be afraid,” he said. “Very afraid.”

Ferguson says it won’t be easy to care for a generation with ailing bodies and many more years to live.

“The baby boomers have set us on a path towards a massive fiscal crisis,” he said. “Which is going to hit as the baby boomers retire.”

The recession, though devastating, will pass. But rising health care costs as boomers age may bring lasting harm to this generation’s financial well-being. By the time all boomers are 65, the senior population will have grown from 40 million now to about 72 million. Who will pay their medical bills?

“This thing is going to blow up,” said Ferguson, “because A: The number of retirees is about to zoom upwards just the way the number of teenagers once zoomed upwards in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s; and B: Because the costs of these systems are completely out of control.”

The strain that the burden of caring for aging boomers will put on the health care system could overwhelm the economy.

If current trends continue, in 20 years almost a third of everything we spend on goods and services will be spent on medical care.

“The cost of health care for the elderly has been explosive,” said Ferguson. “And that is the crisis which seems to be the really big crisis lying ahead of us. We simply don’t have an answer as a society to the problem of a very large number of relatively unhealthy people who live into their 80s.”

Blattman and other boomers have woken up to a new reality. Their long-cherished belief that their lives would inevitably improve over time may no longer be true. It’s a cautionary tale for future generations.

“Never assume things will be better tomorrow than they are today,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you’re going to be worse off. Just don’t take things for granted and enjoy what you have.”

But he hasn’t given up hope. “Never,” he said.

© 2012 CNBC, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Video: Boomers aim to break glass ceiling

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    >> don't get me started.

    >>> 78 million americans are considered baby boomers , and tonight on cnbc, tom brokaw presents a two-hour look at the generation that vowed to change the world . hey, tom, good morning. nice to see you.

    >> good morning, matt. i think when people say baby boomers , they think of one kind of classroom filled with the same kind of people. it is a wide range because it goes from 1946 to 1964 , and the landscape is really uneven in terms of what they achieve, what they hope to achieve and how they thought they should achieve it.

    >> i want to talk to you on the other side of something, but i want to first show a clip from your documentary. and this concerns two women who really kind of exemplify the dramatic changes that baby boomers have gone through. let's take a look.

    >> did either of you in your teenage years, in your wildest dreams imagine that one day you would be sitting side by side with another woman, you'd be the chairman, you'd be the ceo of an s&p 100 company called xerox ?

    >> never.

    >> never.

    >> i didn't even know what a ceo was. i didn't know what xerox was. i didn't know about corporations.

    >> reporter: in july 2009 , eight years after anne mulcahy was named ceo of xerox , she passed the baton to ursula burns and stayed on as chairman. two women , different races, sharing the leadership of a fortune 500 company. when you came to xerox , it was still pretty much a good old boys network at that time.

    >> it was. i think they were unique in the sense that they started to recognize the inherent biases.

    >> but the guys that you worked with, they went off and played golf together on saturdays, probably.

    >> i didn't go with them. i was a black female engineer in a white, male engineering environment. they knew that when i did arrive that they needed to do something a little different to make me fit in.

    >> reporter: american business had to adapt to increasing numbers of women in the workplace. just 40 years ago, women made up a little over a third of all workers. now half the nation's employees are women .

    >> one of the things that i'm reminded of all the time is that we stand on the shoulders of the people who came before us. it's work-a-day for us now. it's work-a-day. we see women running around and blacks running around, really.

    >> i'm often grateful to that handful of women who, you know, one generation ahead of us who really have the scars to show stepping out there.

    >> reporter: the enhanced role of women in the workplace has affected every aspect of society, from education to family life . it was the boomers who established the working mother as a new institution. what do you say to a young woman who is 38 years old and in your company and is a rising star , somebody you're really counting on, and she comes to you and says, anne, ursula, i want to go home and have a baby, my clock is ticking?

    >> we say congratulations.

    >> right.

    >> and i'm not joking on that one. we would.

    >> but we'd say, you know, don't ever think those things are mutually exclusive .

    >> that's right.

    >> because if you choose, this is all doable. it's not easy, but doable. and you should never have to make a choice to eliminate kind of that kind of personal fulfillment because you're serious about your career. those days are gone.

    >> there are good examples of where baby boomers have come, but how much time in the special do you stop and look at -- we're not done, we're not throwing in the towel yet as a generation.

    >> right.

    >> what about looking forward to where we're going?

    >> bill clinton is on this documentary tonight at the very end, and he says we've kind of got to get out of the way of the upcoming generation. they have a hard time prying their fingers off the levers of power, and we ought to devote the last part of our life to service. he thinks that could be the unifying theme, left, right and in the middle, and i think there's something to that, probably.

    >> as a generation, are the boomers as interesting as the greatest generation ?

    >> oh, yeah. i think that they're much different because they've got so many different parts. greatest generation went through two great, searing, identifying experiences, the great depression and then world war ii , and they had more in common, i suppose, in terms of what they wanted to achieve and how they were going to achieve it. this one is all over the landscape, as i said the other night. this one has madonna as a baby boomer . so is rick warren . whoopi goldberg is a baby boomer . so is sarah palin . so, you have that wide range.

    >> tom brokaw , thanks. appreciate it. the two-hour documentary, " tom brokaw reports boomers!" tonight at 9:00 eastern and pacific time on cnbc. we're back in a

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