Rick Clancy was head of corporate communications for Sony’s U.S. electronics business in 2009 when the company began downsizing. He opted into an early retirement program, but at 54 he wasn’t nearly ready for retirement, so he began searching for another job. That’s when he hit the wall. “I put the dots together and they related to age and income expectation,” says Clancy. “There were roles I was qualified for and were attractive to me, but as people learned more about me I got the sense they were looking for someone who would require less compensation, at a younger age.” Fortunately for Clancy, one item on his career bucket list was working for a startup. After decades at a large, multi-national company he wanted to experience entrepreneurial DNA.
Nine months later—in 2010—he joined Covario, a digital search and marketing firm based in San Diego. Capitalizing on his extensive experience, Clancy built in-house public relations and communications from scratch. “The company was four years old and didn’t have that capability internally,” says Clancy. “That was exciting, to be part of a young company in a dynamic industry, creating and managing a function that hadn’t existed before.” Not only was his impact greater than it would have been at a larger firm, Clancy was viewed as an important asset. “They got me, my experience and all my relationships and they were happy to be able to get that.” The challenge on both sides was agreeing on compensation. The final compromise: Clancy accepted less than he’d been making and Covario upped their offer. Now he works with much younger people, including co-CEOs, but says it’s not an issue. “They seem to appreciate having me around.”
Clancy’s experience illustrates how age bias, prevalent no matter what size the company, is often far less of an issue in small businesses. Although neither the Bureau of Labor Statistics nor Small Business Administration tracks the demographics of small business hiring, midlifers at small companies say they face less discrimination than at larger organizations. “You tend to be tapped for more of your total skill inventory than if you were part of a larger organization,” says David Lewis, president and CEO of Operations Inc, a human resources outsourcing and consulting firm in Norwalk, Connecticut. Lewis’ firm handles hiring and firing of candidates for a significant number of small businesses where he finds older works are far less likely to be shuffled out.
Experience and maturity played a key role for Kim Burns, who was hired last June as warehouse manager for All American Clothing in Arcanum, Ohio. Burns had spent 22 years as a supervisor on the manufacturing floor of a leading maker of RV refrigerators. When she remarried and moved, she applied almost exclusively to small businesses. Interviewing with All American, she felt they appreciated her experience. She even raised the issue of retirement, telling them she expected to work another 15-17 years. Burns finds the multi-generational environment very accepting. “I think because it’s a small company there’s a lot of camaraderie and flexibility,” she says.
Longevity for Less Pay
A position in a smaller organization can be fairly secure as long as you keep skills up to date. Because small companies have fewer resources, an experienced worker who can jump right in is appealing, says Kerry Hannon, author of Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy…and Pays the Bills, because it saves the company time and money.
Peter Lawrence joined Southeastern Laser, a supplier of laser printers, toner cartridges and repair serves in Knoxville, Tennessee, when he was 64, to head up sales. Lawrence said Southeastern wanted his lifelong experience, and he was looking for something flexible and part time. Since joining the company 13 years ago, he has more than doubled their business, largely due to his old school methods. “Part of the problem in today’s market, when it comes to sales, is technology. Everything is email or texting. I’ve always been a firm believer in face-to-face,” he says. “You have to really know the people you are dealing with.”
Of course the fact that small businesses have fewer resources also means they are often unable to match the salary expected by executive-level candidates. “You could be offered as much as 30 percent below what you were making before, at a larger company,” says Hannon. She encourages those considering working at a small firm to be flexible. “A small company will give you other things, so look at the whole picture. They may be able to give you flexibility, in terms of hours, or the ability to work from home a few days a week, and they value your experience and loyalty once you’re in the door.”
Project Work: Often Immune to Bias
Age bias is less of an issue for workers who come to a small business on a project basis, swooping in to solve a problem. These businesses hire based on capabilities, and age isn’t usually a consideration. FlexProfessionals in metropolitan Washington D.C. places many of its over-50 candidates in permanent part-time jobs or in project work; 95% of its clients are small businesses. “We’ve been most successful placing older workers,” says Sheila Murphy, one of the company’s three co-founders. The projects span a wide range of professions including finance, sales, marketing, human resources, administration, web development, project management and proposal writing. “The biggest bias against age is in the high–tech industry, especially companies with young CEOs and staff. They often feel older workers are digital immigrants rather than natives,” says Murphy. Not so in more established businesses. “They really value specialized skill sets like someone who had a career in the government and understands proposal writing.”
Legacy Business: Another Alternative
Some older workers are looking to start a “legacy business” with a younger partner, often a family member as a way to keep working, avoid the politics of age in the workplace, and add some breathing room for getting a business off the ground. “When you partner with someone younger, it’s not a business that will end in a decade,” says Hannon. “You can plan for 15-20 years down the road.”
Jo-Ann Tilghman started a legacy business eight years ago with her son James. She was 58 at the time. The business, Granny Jo Products in Lakeland, Florida, sells items like two-handled coffee mugs for steadier grip and fashionable carry-alls that can be attached to a walker. The idea came to Tilghman when her mother-in-law, who had Alzheimer’s disease, wasn’t strong enough to hold a coffee mug in one hand. Tilghman tried to find a two-handled cup but could only find plastic ones for children. She asked her son, who had a background in global sourcing for a large textile company, if he knew someone in China who could design and create one.
“Within 24 hours I was sent a photo of the mug. My son and I decided we would start a business because we knew this was a market that is drastically under-served and is only going to grow,” she says. Today Granny Jo makes 20 products for the elderly and the disabled; revenue is growing 25 percent a year. Jo-Ann Tilghman is president and her son is senior vice president of sales and fulfillment. Partnering with him has worked out well, she says. “We don’t step on each other’s toes,” she says. “He’s very good at what he does and I’m good at what I do.”
by Eilene Zimmerman
Eilene Zimmerman writes extensively about the workplace, entrepreneurship, technology and small businesses, for the New York Times, CNNMoney, Crain’s New York Business, and Fortune Small Business.