The constant doom and gloom chatter about older job seekers is wearing on me. I get it. I have stared into the eyes of job hunters over 50 and seen the pulsing fear. They’re often frustrated and depressed by the feeling that employers won’t hire them due to their age.
Earlier this week, I was the featured expert at AARP’s Virtual Career Fair and attendees peppered me with questions on how to fight back against ageism. They worried that the gray hair in their LinkedIn picture was why recruiters ignored them and employers didn’t call for interviews. They surmised that the years of work experience on their resumés worked against them because employers quickly did the age math.
Why Things Are Better Than You’ve Heard
These concerns, of course, are legitimate (and I will give you four ways to fight back in a minute). Yes, ageism exists. But after taking a hard look at the numbers and talking to older workers, I’ve discovered that things are actually far better than the national discourse might indicate.
So let’s put things into perspective.
Older job applicants do get hired. Yes, it typically takes longer for someone over 55 to land a job than someone younger, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (37 weeks for people 55 to 64 vs. 25 weeks for those 25 to 34). But the current unemployment rate for people over 55 is 3.5 percent; it’s 5.2 percent for those age 25 to 34 and 4.9 percent overall. (One caveat: Reuters columnist Mark Miller says if you add in workers over 55 holding part-time jobs who would rather be working full-time and the older unemployed who’ve given up looking for work, the jobless rate for this age group is 12 percent.)
I was encouraged by some findings in the recent New York Times article, “More Older People Are Finding Work, But What Kind?” The story noted that, according to Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution, between 2007 and 2014, the largest growth in the labor force among all age groups was 62 to 64; men’s participation grew 2.9 percent, and women’s grew 4.5 percent. “This is in marked contrast to a mysterious decline in the labor force participation rate by prime age workers,” the Times said.
The article also said that when older job hunters get hired, they’re increasingly being funneled into “old-person” jobs, according to new research by Matthew Rutledge, an economist at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
The jobs aren’t bad — they’re just in certain fields. Often, they’re a mix of high-skilled service work (managers, sales supervisors and accountants) and low-skilled service work (truck drivers, janitors and nursing aides). However, the types of jobs that favor older workers, Rutledge found, pay 6 to 11 percent less than ones favoring younger workers.
Money Isn’t Everything for 50+ Job Hunters
But when I ask older job applicants how they’d feel about working for less money than in the past, I often hear something that may surprise you.
Many aren’t looking for high-pay, stressful management positions on the frontlines. In fact, pay is not really that much of a dealbreaker. What they want mostly are flexible hours and a sense of autonomy. Better still, they say, they’d love to work for a business or nonprofit whose mission they believe in and where they feel they can use their talents to make a difference.
For these people, rewarding and flexible work is far more than a paycheck. In fact, according to a new FlexJobs survey of more than 1,000 respondents aged 50 and older: “work flexibility is the most important factor when seniors evaluate a job prospect.” The survey said that nearly a quarter of respondents would take a 10 or 20 percent pay cut if they could telecommute, for example.
“Older workers have reached a point where they realize that, while money may be important and necessary for them to make, it’s not the first consideration they pay attention to when trying to find a job,” Sara Sutton Fell, CEO and founder of FlexJobs told me. “Workers nearing retirement age often have a strong understanding of their priorities.”
4 Tips for Older Job Seekers
So if you’re over 50 and looking for a job, take a breath. Then, follow these four tips:
1. Weigh potential pay vs. vs work-life balance. Do some soul-searching about your salary concerns. You might want to negotiate for more freedom to telecommute or additional paid vacation days rather than higher pay.
2. Be honest about how many hours you want to work and where you want to spend them. Do you want to work from home some or all of the time? Is a flexible schedule what you’re really after? “Some flexible jobs let you set your own hours,” says Fell.
Do you want a steady, regular job or are you interested in projects and occasional, temporary work during certain seasons?
3. Don’t ignore consulting and part-time contract work in your field. I find that plenty of job seekers take this path. They wind up working for former employers or with small businesses and startups who crave their expertise and experience, but can’t afford a full-time employee.
4. Market your experience. A clear benefit of older workers is the experience and skills you bring to a job. You can solve a company’s problem today with confidence. No amount of training can give a younger worker the insight gleaned from three decades years spent in the trenches.
As anti-ageism crusader Ashton Applewhite recently wrote in The New York Times: “Veteran workers bring deep knowledge to the table, as well as well-honed interpersonal skills, better judgment than the less experienced and a more balanced perspective.”