I suspect I’m not the only one who read this WSJ story about workers in their 70s and 80s scuffling to find work flipping burgers and crowding community job centers to “retrain” and found my natural feelings of sympathy laced with a vague sense of foreboding.

Written by Clare Ansberry, one of the Journal’s truly great reporters and writers, these tales of financial hardship and insecurity are more than compelling. For everyone in 401(k) Nation, they’re ominous.

AKRON, Ohio — Mary Appleby, 76 years old, lost her job in January as a cashier at a courthouse cafeteria here. She is now looking for minimum-wage work.

Mary Bennett, 80, began filling out applications for fast-food restaurants and convenience stores after she was laid off last March as a machinist. Fred Dase, 81, a bartender until last summer, also needs another job.

This is real, simple journalism—my favorite kind. It sheds light on an important social and economic reality while serving to connect the Journal’s two million mostly better-off readers with individuals struggling in a collapsed economy, and, perhaps, with their own anxieties.

With jobs so scarce, people in their seventh and eighth decades are up against those half their age in a desperate scramble for work.

Yikes. And there are real stats to back up the premise (my emphasis):

The number of unemployed workers 75 and older increased to more than 73,000 in January, up 46% from the prior January. Among workers 65 and older, the jobless rate stands at 5.7%. That’s below the national average, but well above what it was in previous recessions, including the recession of 1981, when it reached at 4.3%.

The growing numbers reflect, in part, an increase in the number of older workers. The percentage of people 65 and older who are in the work force rose to 16.8% at year end, from 11.9% a decade earlier. Among people 75 and older, the increase was even greater — to 7.3%, from 4.7%.

But it’s the anecdotes that get you. I notice that many of the stories—without intending to—illustrate how structural problems in the economy tend to reinforce each other. In the following case, inadequate pension and health care systems combine with a sputtering American jobs machine to create severe economic distress late in the life of Fred Dase.

Mr. Dase, the unemployed bartender, knows. He spent 40 years working at Pittsburgh taverns and at his own bar, never receiving a pension. Over the years, when the $1,625 Social Security check he and his wife receive each month didn’t cover prescriptions or other medical costs such as supplemental Medicare insurance, they used their charge cards. Last year, when their credit-card debt reached $29,000, they took out a $26,000 home-equity loan to pay off most of it. He still owes $5,000 on one credit card, and needs to come up with $363 a month for eight years to pay off the home-equity loan.

Mr. Dase had been working at a local Veterans of Foreign Wars club as a bartender. But he had to leave in August because it required too much standing. He looked for other jobs, applying at Big Lot stores, but he never heard back. “Who is going to hire an 81-year-old man?” he asks.

Three weeks ago, he entered a jobs-training program called the Senior Community Service Employment Program. The program pays him $7.15 an hour to stuff envelopes and greet visitors at the human-services center in Turtle Creek, Pa. “It helps quite a bit,” he says. “Towards the end of the month, we start to run out of food. But luckily my daughter comes and helps us out.”

And here’s another:

Lois Humphrey, 80, has trouble climbing stairs and suffers severe hearing loss, so she needs an amplifier on her phone. She had to leave her department-store job because it was too hard on her feet. But she must keep working to pay for rent and prescriptions. She started at Experience Works in 2000. She has moved from one community organization to another in her Mechanicsburg, Pa., community, receiving different training along the way.

She is now back with Experience Works, the nonprofit training and placement organization, which thus far has been unable to find her a private-sector job. “I’ve been stuck in here,” she says, but gladly so. “I still need to work because of medications,” says Ms. Humphrey, who has cancer, diabetes and arthritis.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.