Older Workers Need Help, Too

Image courtesy of Flickr/Mario Mancuso

When asked what older workers bring to the table, employers tend to give the same clichéd response: experience. But it’s more specific than that.

According to Andrew McNeilis, chief operating officer at London-based recruitment agency Phaidon International, employers value older employees who are currently employed in high-level positions.

“It’s absolutely right to say that an experienced person at the height of their game who is not necessarily looking to move gets approached the most,” McNeilis said. 

Not every employer over age 55 is the vice president of their company. As a result, there is a large contingent of the older workforce struggling to find gainful employment in a tough economy.

Maria Heidkamp

Heidkamp is a senior researcher at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University where she focuses on issues affecting older workers and the long-term unemployed. Below, she discusses the challenges associated with being an older member of the workforce and how they can be overcome.  

How do you define an older job seeker? What age range?

Heidkamp: We typically define an older worker or job seeker as being 55 or older, but there’s no single agreed-upon definition. Age discrimination legislation covers individuals 40 and older. We sometimes talk about “younger older workers” who may be in their 40s and 50s and “older older workers” who are in their 60s and beyond. This is important because older workers are not a homogenous group. A 50-year-old job seeker may have different needs, responsibilities and concerns compared to those of a 62-year-old job seeker.

Everyone seems to be focused on getting jobs for the large millennial generation. How big of an issue is finding employment for older job seekers?

Heidkamp: There is no question than younger job seekers have had a tough time in recent years, but older job seekers have struggled as well. Older workers are less likely to be unemployed than younger or prime-age workers, but when they do lose a job, they tend to have a far more difficult time finding a new one and are more likely to end up long-term unemployed — or unemployed longer than six months. They may also face discrimination because of their age. The combination of long-term unemployment and age seems to leave them facing a double stigma. Our Heldrich Center Work Trends surveys have found that in the past few years, many long-term unemployed older job seekers have faced profound economic distress and emotional strain. Many older job seekers have tapped into savings and retirement accounts to get by, and the longer they remain unemployed, the less time they have to recoup those funds. If they do find a new job, older workers are likely to suffer bigger wage losses than their younger counterparts.

What are the challenges facing older job seekers? Are they purely skills based, or is fitting into youthful corporate cultures an issue as well?

Heidkamp: Older job seekers face a combination of challenges. For some, the job search process is radically different from what it may have been the last time they looked for work, involving social networking skills they may lack. For others, there are certainly skills-related issues, and for these individuals, education and training — ideally tied to employer demand or better yet tied to specific jobs as in the case of work-based or on-the-job training — may make sense. We’ve just completed a study for AARP on the topic of education and training for older job seekers. Among the findings is that there is a lack of unbiased, high quality advising to help older job seekers identify appropriate education and training options. Older job seekers need access to qualified, impartial advisors to help them navigate their options and to assess the potential return on investment for education and training they are considering.

Fitting into youthful corporate cultures may also be a challenge for some older job seekers, and this may be a bigger issue in some industries than others. My colleague was just talking about her 58-year-old unemployed friend who lives in the Boston area and wants to go back to school with the hope of finding a job in IT. It’s hard to imagine that he will fare well competing with young college graduates in the region. On the other hand, he has great experience managing projects and directing teams, so he has to find a way to demonstrate this as part of his value proposition.

How can older workers combat these issues?

Heidkamp: At a minimum, older workers and job seekers should strive to make sure their technology and digital literacy skills are up to date. They might also consider taking advantage of education and training opportunities, whether in person or online, to demonstrate their ability and enthusiasm for acquiring new skills. A lot has changed since they were last in school. Given the speed of technology-driven and other changes in the workplace, lifelong learning has probably never been more important, and employers may want to see credentials that are current, or at least a willingness to pick up new skills. Networking, both in person and through social media, is also important because in a volatile job market, to some extent we are all in constant job search and career management mode.

Is finding employment based on the effort of the individual, or does corporate culture need to change in order to give these capable individuals a fair chance at employment?

Heidkamp: We know that settling into a lifetime of employment and career advancement with a single employer is rarely the norm anymore, and we’ve seen in recent years that individuals are increasingly responsible for managing their careers, their job searches and their education and training. The public workforce system offers limited assistance for some job seekers, but it was never structured to provide the kind of ongoing career navigation and support for retraining and lifelong learning that are needed today. It really does fall to the individual.

At the same time, demographics of an aging workforce — combined with an improving labor market that will, over time, have less slack in it — would seem to indicate that employers will have to adapt corporate culture in order to hire and retain the older workers they will ultimately need. Issues relating to age discrimination in the workplace obviously pre-date the Great Recession, but the recent combination of long-term unemployment and possible age discrimination that seems to be making it exceptionally difficult for older job seekers to reconnect to employment needs to change. Recognizing this, the White House has launched an effort to encourage employers to pledge to removing barriers in their recruiting processes that intentionally or inadvertently treat the long-term unemployed fairly. Other efforts in the past have identified “mature-worker friendly” employers. We’ve done some research on how some healthcare employers have made changes in the workplace to adapt to an aging workforce, which may include using technology to reduce the physical demands of the job as well as more flexibility around scheduling and bridge-to-retirement options.

What do older job seekers have the potential to bring to an organization, aside from life/industry experience?

Heidkamp: Much has been written about the advantages of a diverse and multi-generational workplace; older workers contribute to that mix. Various reports contend that older workers are patient, loyal, good listeners, detail-oriented, good communicators and punctual. Research has found that older workers on average are as productive as younger workers, however, and this may be the most important factor for employers.