When he was let go as the director of corporate communications at Time Warner during a round of layoffs, Mr. Kunen confronted the core questions: What is it he could do? Where did his skills translate to a job, one that made him feel some sense of purpose? And who would hire him, given his age?
Many older job seekers know age discrimination, although tough to prove, is a fact of life. But increasingly they are finding jobs at smaller organizations, including nonprofits, start-ups, small trade associations and niche educational programs. Typically, these are employers that operate with a spare staff and depend on the experience and expertise that comes with age.
“When I initially sent out résumés to commercial language schools, the only school that responded was one run by a person as old as I was,” said Mr. Kunen, the author of “Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life.” “And I was interviewed by 30-year-olds who totally didn’t ‘get’ me,” he said. “You can sense it immediately; it’s like being on a bad blind date.”
For Mr. Kunen, patience and persistence paid off. Today, he spends 16 hours a week in the classroom teaching two courses. “At this age and stage of my life, working with highly motivated immigrants gives me a sense of purpose and engagement with the world,” he said. “Going to work is spending time with friends. I feel appreciated.”
The linchpin: “It also gives me an income that makes a significant difference when added to my pension and Social Security.”
Like Mr. Kunen, even people with retirement savings see earning some income as a safety net as they age. “In my research, the first thing I hear from older workers looking for a job is that they need to work,” said Ofer Sharone, an assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, author of “Flawed System/Flawed Self: Job Searching and Unemployment Experiences” and founder of the nonprofit Institute for Career Transitions.
“They may be over 60 and very close to traditional retirement age, but they feel they don’t have the resources to retire. And many are feeling healthy. They’re at the top of their game and wanting to make a contribution,” Mr. Sharone said.
But the older a person is, the harder it is to get a job. “With each decade the length it takes to get re-employed is longer,” he said. The average duration of unemployment for those over 55 is nearly a year, compared with seven months for someone younger.
Employers hesitate for myriad reasons, and some of their assumptions may not be valid. “Most of these turn out not to be accurate when you do the research. But nonetheless they are tenaciously held,” Mr. Sharone said.
Some employers believe older people only want to work for a short time, compared with younger people. “When researchers look at that question, it is actually the opposite,” Mr. Sharone said. “The older worker tends to be more loyal and stick around longer than the younger worker. The younger worker is moving around to acquire new skills.”
Another obstacle is the perception that older worker are less productive and energetic. “Older workers are as productive as any other age group,” Mr. Sharone said. “The variations are between workers, not age groups.”
To counteract that stereotype, an older worker who is physically fit can exude a get-up-and-go attitude.
Some employers also believe older job applicants expect high salaries or are overqualified. “Most people are happy and willing to go back to a position they had a few years ago, if it gets them back doing work they’re qualified to do and want to do,” Mr. Sharone said.
Moving into a new arena as Mr. Kunen did can sidestep that issue. It makes sense to an employer that someone who does not have experience will work for less, Mr. Sharone said.
A lack of technology aptitude is a common worry. “People over 60 are often perceived as technophobes,” said Nancy Collamer, a career coach and author of “Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement.” To overcome age bias, demonstrate comfort with technology and social media, Ms. Collamer said. “Include your LinkedIn URL on your résumé, or mention an interesting article you found on the employer’s Twitter feed during an interview.”
Career coaching can pay off. “You want someone who understands the obstacles and can help guide and motivate you,” Mr. Sharone said. The federally financed One-Stop Career Centers typically provide free counseling. Many local colleges and community libraries also offer free workshops with career coaches.
“I never faced age discrimination in my nonprofit job search, at least not any that was obvious to me,” said Bill Valentine, 58, donor relations manager at the United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut.
Mr. Valentine, the former customer service manager for the financial services firm ING, retired in November 2013 and began job-hunting last April. Three months later, he was hired.
He credits EncoreHartford, a 16-week fellowship program he completed last summer, for helping him find his new position. Run by the University of Connecticut’s Nonprofit Leadership Program, it helps professionals, mostly older than 50, make the transition to jobs in the state’s nonprofit sector.
During his fellowship, Mr. Valentine had 35 networking meetings. That led to four formal job interviews, two with the United Way. “Not one of those networking meetings was a waste of time. I met someone. I learned something,” he said.
“Academic research convincingly shows that more than half of all jobs come through a network,” said Chris Farrell, the author of “Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community and the Good Life.” “My suspicion is that the percentage is even higher for 60-plus workers.”
“Meet with as many people from your network as possible. Gather their insights and their suggestions,” he said. “Always ask them the most critical question: ‘Who else should I talk to?’ ”
Opportunities can crop up in unlikely places. “At the wake of a former colleague, I was talking with my former boss and two former co-workers as we waited in line,” said Susan P. Joyce, online job search specialist and editor of Job-Hunt.org and WorkCoachCafe.com. “We had all been laid off. My former boss had a new job and needed to hire people he knew and could trust. So, he talked with the two of them and ended up hiring them.”
For some older workers, it makes sense to explore consulting and contract work. “There does not seem to be much discrimination in the part-time, temporary, project-based and seasonal job hiring areas,” said Art Koff, founder of a job board, RetiredBrains.com.
Mary Doan, 60, a former chief executive of the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi’s San Francisco office, earns a living by stringing together short-term marketing director and development consulting stints — most lasting from three months to about a year.
Her employers have included Gen110, a Silicon Valley start-up that sellssolar energy, and nonprofit organizations, such as the San Francisco Food Bank and Bread and Roses, an organization that brings live music performances to various venues including senior centers.
Her age has not been an issue, she said. “All of my employers have found me through friends and colleagues from my past, so I haven’t had to job-hunt, per se.”
“I’m well aware, though, that I couldn’t do enough disguising of my résumé for people not to know that I have been around the block a few times,” she said. “I doubt I could apply blindly online and get a response even if I thought a job was perfect for me.”
Retiring is not on her radar. “I’ve done work for 50 bucks an hour and for $200 an hour. I’m just happy to roll my sleeves up and be engaged,” she said. “It’s far more fun than retirement could possibly be.”