Midcareer mayhem: Gen X unemployment at crisis level

In the wake of COVID-19, Gen Z and millennials are embracing digital workspaces, Baby Boomers are retiring earlier, and Generation Xers are left in the lurch.

That may be a wide generalization, but global employment nonprofit organization Generation recently published a paper exploring the career hurdles facing workers 45 and older and found that more than 50% of the Gen Xers surveyed who were seeking work said that COVID-19 had hurt their employment status.

Similarly, a majority of the employers polled confessed to perceiving older workers as less skilled than younger candidates. The authors said that this could have been the result of the pandemic placing a new emphasis on digital workspaces and automation.

“Critically, these insights are consistent across all seven countries in our survey, highlighting an unexpected shared reality for this cohort,” the authors wrote. The research comes from participants in the U.S., Brazil, India, Italy, Singapore, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

With more than 75 million Baby Boomers choosing to retire earlier than previously expected, Generation X remains the largest demographic looking for work.

Why aren’t they finding jobs?

When participating employers were asked why they were reluctant to hire Gen X workers, the top responses were as follows: Older workers are hesitant to try new technologies (38%); older workers are simply incapable of learning new skills (27%); and older workers have difficulty working with other generations (21%).

At the same time, 87% of the employers who had no qualms about hiring workers who were 45 and older said that older workers consistently outperform younger team members.

Data supports the idea that older workers are reluctant to take on new skills. More than 57% of older workers confessed to being apprehensive about learning new technology skills, with most citing either conflicting personal duties or a lack of available programs to teach them.

But do older workers have trouble working with younger workers? That doesn’t seem to be the issue: In a recent poll published by AARP, researchers found that 77% of workers younger than 40 said that having older colleagues creates an opportunity to learn new skills. An additional 69% said that older employees make the work environment more productive. The vast majority of older workers surveyed for the same report said that they also learned new skills when they worked alongside younger team members.

Regardless, the perceptions associated with older workers make it harder for Gen X to secure work. The new survey found this to be especially true of entry- and mid-level positions.

Addressing ageism during the pandemic

In 2021, ageism stands as one of the leading forms of institutionalized bias. Mona Mourshed, CEO of Generation, suggested four ways companies could help restore employment rates for older workers:

  1. Linking training programs directly to employment opportunities and providing stipends to support workers who are 45 and above and hesitant to engage in training.
  2. Changing hiring practices to reduce potential age biases and better assess the potential of 45-and-older job candidates by using demonstration-based exercises.
  3. Rethinking current employer training approaches to make it easier to fill new roles with existing employees who are 45 and older, versus relying on new hires.
  4. Improving employment data on a national level to help government organizations address the unique challenges of specific age groups.