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Survival Tactics for Older Job Seekers 

Age discrimination can affect seniors looking for work. Photograph by Getty Images Close

Age discrimination can affect seniors looking for work. Photograph by Getty Images

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Age discrimination can affect seniors looking for work. Photograph by Getty Images

Two years before William Morris Endeavor laid off Toni Mason, the talent agency repositioned her and hired someone younger to take her old position for what Mason assumes was less pay. “They gradually made me more and more obsolete,” the 66-year-old agent says. The company was generous with its severance package when it laid her off in 2010, she says, but made her sign a waiver that she wouldn’t sue for age discrimination. The experience left her bitter. “Twenty-five years I’m at a company, at least they can give me a cake,” she says. “But I had to leave the same day.”

For older workers, this economic downturn has been harder than most. According to the AARP, the median length of unemployment for workers 55 and over as of May 2013 is 54.2 weeks. That’s more than five times as much as the 10-week median before 2008's market meltdown. It’s also significantly higher than the 35.9-week unemployment duration of workers under the age of 55.

He Said, She Said

Age discrimination is a major reason older workers are struggling. In a 2013 survey by the AARP, 64 percent of adults 45 to 74 years old said they had seen some form of age discrimination, and 20 percent said they had been passed up for a job because of it. Proving you’ve been discriminated against is extremely difficult. “It becomes a lot of ‘he said/she said’ accusations,” says Gene Burnard, publisher of SeniorJobBank.org, a job search site for seniors. Worse, litigants may find themselves blacklisted from future jobs if prospective employers find out they filed a suit.

Rather than fight age discrimination, most seniors have no choice but to try and overcome it. The first hurdle is getting an interview when your resume may indicate you’ve been around the block a few times. Burnard recommends including only the years at your most recent jobs and placing more emphasis on skills than tenure. “Nobody’s interested in what you’ve done, but what you can do for them,” he says.

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While job search sites like Burnard’s and RetirementJobs.com are useful, Burnard thinks their value is limited. “This may be heresy for me to say this, but networking provides far greater opportunities to find jobs than browsing at job sites,” he says. “People think ‘I’ll just go online, find a few jobs, click a few buttons, send my resume in and that’s it.’ That’s not job searching.” Burnard says networking should actually be easier for seniors, because they often have more colleagues, family and friends than younger workers.

Age as Asset

Even if your contacts get you in the door for an interview, the young person sitting across the table from you might have her own biases. The important thing is to get her to see your age as an asset.

Arlene Handmaker, who describes herself as in her “upper 60s,” has more than 30 years of experience in Pittsburgh’s health care industry, seven of which were in sales for an assisted-living facility. “I had a 98 percent conversion rate from tours of our facilities to move-ins,” she says. “The fact that I was older helped me. We had a very sweet young lady in her twenties working there, too, but a lot of the families coming in would say, ‘Can I please deal with you? She doesn’t get it.’”

Seniors have to walk a tightrope between selling their expertise while not seeming smarter than their future boss. “You don’t want to come across to a younger hiring manager as a know-it-all,” says Tim Driver, founder of RetirementJobs.com. “You have to convey as a job seeker over age 50 that you are ready to learn. That’s a tough path to tread for many seniors.”

Senior-Friendly Industries

Certain industries are more senior-friendly than others, retail in particular. “One trend we’re seeing with our retail employers is that their customer satisfaction rates are measurably higher when customers are interacting with an older associate on the floor,” Driver says. (Granted, moving into low-paying retail sales is not a dream job for many older employees.) Financial services also tends to be more accepting of older workers, for the same reason as the health care industry does: If you’re planning for retirement, you want to deal with someone who knows the territory.

Making an industry shift late in life is tough. In 2005, when he was in his 50s, Fred Sanford switched from mortgage banking in Chicago to financial planning at Merrill Lynch in Orlando, Florida. He never gathered enough assets from clients to survive the crash. “I got laid off in 2010 when my book of business couldn’t sustain a good commission level,” says Sanford, now 60.

Although Sanford was approached by other financial firms, they balked at his lack of a client base. He tried looking in other areas -- public relations, sales -- but nothing panned out. So he turned to music, something he hasn’t done since his 30s, and plays “boomer tunes” -- Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel -- at piano bars. His wife, a teaching assistant who works with autistic children, is the main breadwinner now.

A Catch-22

Toni Mason says older workers face a Catch-22. Seniors are discriminated against for being too old and qualified in their own fields, she says, and yet they can’t switch to something else because of their lack of experience. “They just look at my resume and see 25 years in the music business,” Mason says. “Everyone says why don’t you change it, put something else. Well, if I walk in the door, they’re going to see I’m not 12.” (William Morris Endeavor's head of corporate communications, Christian Muirhead, confirms that Mason's former position was eliminated; beyond that, he says, he cannot comment on anyone's former employment situation.)

Overcoming depression over losing a job they have worked at most of their life is often the biggest obstacle seniors face. Mason credits her career coach, Renee Rosenberg, and the Five O’Clock Club, a career/networking group, with keeping her sane.

Mason particularly valued the conference calls the group holds with fellow job seekers -- it made her realize she wasn’t alone. “I no longer felt like a skunk at a lawn party,” she says. “All these people on the calls had degrees up the yin-yang and they couldn’t get jobs, and some of them were younger than me.”

Now Mason is freelancing as a talent agent and making half as much as she did at William Morris Endeavor. “I’m not in a position financially to retire and I don’t want to,” she says. “I’m still healthy, and as long as I can earn my own money and not have to dip into my own savings, I definitely want to do that.”

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