Older workers struggle for cred in new economy

Lauren Botney, 58, of Portland, Oregon, is looking for work, either in a corporation or nonprofit, She's trained as a lawyer and also run a family business. She says age discrimination in hiring is real, but hard to identify and prove.   

The unemployment rate for Americans age 55 and older is 4.4 percent -- lower by more than 1.5 percent than the population as a whole. By contrast, the unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds is 21 percent.

But older workers are also at greater risk of suffering long-term unemployment than any other age group. More than half of older workers have been unemployed for six months or longer, and many of them have been actively looking for more than one year. When older workers leave the job market for a period of time -- for instance, after a layoff, or to care for a spouse or elderly parent -- they are more likely to experience a significant decline in pay and job quality (working part-time or on contract) than other age cohorts.

And older workers often feel their age status acutely in the workforce. L.D. Kirshenbaum is 52 and lives in San Francisco. Several years ago, after a divorce and with a teenager at home to support, she found a job working half-time at a local Apple retail store.

Kirshenbaum graduated from Reed College, she’d worked as a journalist and launched a mobile news app. But she says she had to earn her cred with co-workers at the Apple store. “You’re sort of judged on your cool factor,” she says. “How clever are you with social media, do you take pictures of your lattes?”

Since then, Kirshenbaum has gone on to be an independent consultant on mobile marketing -- working with developers half her age.

“There are definitely younger co-workers that assume everyone’s uncool unless proven otherwise,” she says. “I have had colleagues who are my age, and they’re very self-conscious about showing themselves to be as young as possible. They’ll wear jeans every day, and they’ll never be caught dead wearing a wristwatch.”

The challenge is amplified when job-searching, says Ofer Sharone at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He’s interviewed older workers extensively for his book, “Flawed System/Flawed Self: Job Searching and Unemployment Experiences.”

HR managers can easily tell how old someone is, and how old they look, from LinkedIn, says Sharone. And he says they wonder: “Will the worker stick around? Maybe they want to retire, maybe they’re not as energetic, maybe they won’t work as many hours, maybe they’re not as technologically savvy.”

Sharone says most of the stereotypes are contradicted by research data on cognitive ability and job performance as we age. For instance, he says, older workers are likely to stay in a job longer than young workers. Also, they can be trained or retrained to be competent on new machines and technologies. And they bring experience and contacts that can benefit the organization, and also younger workers, through mentoring.

Sharone says what older workers need -- especially those who are job-hunting without success -- are groups to attend for career counseling and peer-group support, “to realize that other very competent, talented people are also not getting a job,” says Sharone. “And this lessens the fear that something is wrong with them, the degree of self-blame.”

Lauren Botney has attended a class for 55+ job-seekers at a local community college in Portland, Ore. She is 58, a lawyer by training, and she successfully ran a family-owned construction business. Now, she is trying to get back to full-time work after raising two kids (they are now teenagers) on her own.

“Back in the old days -- and I’ve been told to be careful using that phrase -- but, for my generation, once you started to have the gray hair, you were considered to be the sage expert in your field,” says Botney. “I think that now, there’s a feeling among many in the workplace that people of my vintage don’t understand anything about computers and therefore we’re too slow or we’re doddering.”

Botney’s trying to neutralize that stereotype by getting a digital marketing certificate from Portland State University.

“The one advantage that my age and experience brings,” says Botney, “is that I can usually do it faster than a newbie. And I should be able to. I’m better at knowing what the right questions are. That’s something that comes with time, experience and maybe a touch of intuition.”

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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