Job Seekers of a Certain Age

Job seekers in their 50s may be stereotyped as counting the days to retirement or running up health-insurance costs. Older professionals describe how they’ve fought those perceptions on the job search.

Trude Diamond has a doctorate in education and many years of proven, successful experience in systems requirement engineering, instructional development and design, and writing and editing. She was on a fast track to senior positions and grew accustomed to receiving regular bumps in title and salary.

The first time she found herself out of a job — a product of the dot-com bust — she was 50 years old. It took her five years to get hired for anything but short-term contracts, but she eventually landed a job at a small company in Tampa, Fla.

After two years at that company, her department’s functions were outsourced to India, and Diamond again found herself looking for a full-time job with benefits.

She hasn’t found one yet.

Diamond is now 63 and says she doubts she will ever again find a full-time job with benefits. She’s not ready for retirement, but she does not feel that corporate America is ready or willing to hire an older worker. “I am forever applying for jobs through my considerable network of business associates and acquaintances and online, and nothing,” she said. “I just really wanted to work at a job that I liked and could do for the next 10 years or so.”

Diamond’s story is not unique. Ladders has spoken with many job seekers and workers age 55 and older who have found themselves unemployed and waiting by a phone that just won’t ring.

It’s more than a feeling for Diamond and others in her situation. Unemployment and job search actually is more difficult for older workers. On average, workers age 55 and older can expect to be out of work 35 weeks, 20 percent longer than those age 25 to 54 years old, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Experts who spoke with Ladders said age has become more of an issue as traditional safety nets have been torn to shreds in the last few years.

“It’s a complicated issue and, yes, it is a problem,” said Laurence J. Stybel, co-founder of Stybel, Peabody & Associates Inc., and executive in residence at the Sawyer School of Business at Suffolk University in Boston. “It’s becoming an acute problem because many baby boomers who thought they were going to retire at 59 1/2 to 62 are now dealing with the aftermath of the collapse of their job security and the collapse of their retirement funds and are saying, ‘Now I have to work till 68 or maybe 70.’ But employers aren’t interested in that.”

Confront Age Head-On

What recourse does an older job seeker have?

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects people 40 years old and older from discrimination based on age. But that doesn’t mean that such discrimination doesn’t happen, said Stybel.

Many people try to hide their ages on their resumes, by leaving off years of graduation and including only the last 15 years or so of work experience. Unless you appear exceptionally young for your age or have resorted to some kind of plastic surgery, this strategy will be effective only until they meet you.

Instead of trying to obfuscate your age, said Stybel, address it head-on.

“Because of the legalities, employers and potential employers are not going to bring up the issue of age,” he said. “If you as the job candidate don’t bring up the issue, it’s not going to be discussed. And, if it’s not discussed, it works to your disadvantage.”

Emphasize the experience and work ethic that come with age, while demonstrating the flexibility and hunger to succeed that are often attributed more to younger workers.

“A lot of companies want young people because they’re hungry,” said Stybel. “The assumption is that somebody 55 or older has got the retirement all set up, the kids are out of college, they don’t need the money, they aren’t hungry. [Potential employers won’t] ask you how hungry you are. It’s a rude question, and it also indirectly deals with age, so it could be an illegal question. It’s up to you to bring it up. Say, ‘I’m hungry; I really want the money, I need the money, I’m going to work my ass off for you.’ ”

Carrell Chadwell, a psychologist and the author of “Changing Careers in a Changing World,” noted that many employers will question (at least to themselves) the length of time an older worker will be with an organization. Again, the best defense is a strong offense, said Chadwell: “They’re likely to wonder how long you are going to stay. You want to mention that. Tell them what your goals are and that you will be there at least several years.”

A more complicated issue is that of health insurance, or, from an employer’s perspective, how much will this person cost our company?

“As people get older, they’re going to use health insurance more,” said Stybel. “And, particularly in small businesses, the cost of health insurance goes up every year, and it’s a major cost. So, when an employer looks at a candidate over the age of 55, they’re going to say, ‘If I hire her, won’t my health insurance costs go through the roof? Because there’s her, there’s her husband…’ But they won’t bring it up because of the legal issues and because it’s awkward.”

Stybel recommends, you guessed it, that you bring up the issue yourself. “Confront the issue in a positive and professional way.”

Age and Wisdom

With age comes wisdom, but if it doesn’t also come with a full-time benefited position, there are alternatives: “Older workers are freelancing, setting themselves up as independent contractors, going to work for smaller companies that maybe can’t afford full-time employees,” Chadwell said.

“Be aggressive about looking,” said Eric Wentworth, 62, a public relations executive, who, in his own words, went from “golden boy to tarnished antique.” “Do something out of the box. Point out how your skills/experience can solve all the problems and/or meet all the qualifications of the job. Always be upbeat and positive. Finally, pray a lot. Because even with all this, you will be discriminated against because of your age — even by employers who are the same age.”