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Older job seekers struggle to overcome age barrier

Resource type: News

Associated Press Online |

The Urban Institute and AARP are Atlantic grantees.


Like many unemployed older workers, 64-year old Allan Kellum fears his age has made it harder to find a new job. At a recent job fair, Kellum expressed interest in a supervisory role coordinating an international health assistance program. A recruiter set him straight: “The people applying for that are young.”

So now Kellum, who lives in McLean, Va., takes no chances. He’s deleted his college graduation date from his resume and reduced the number of years it covers. He’s hoping that will help move his resume past any screeners who would be put off by his age.

Kellum, who’s been out of work since January, may be right to be concerned. Despite their years of experience, out-of-work older people are finding it harder than other adults to find new jobs. And attempts to appear younger on resumes and in person some are even taking Botox injections may be no match for the squeeze this recession is putting on employers.

Older workers have always found it harder than others to land a new job after a layoff. In part, that’s because many employers assume they’re more expensive or won’t stay long in jobs that pay less than they’ve earned previously.

But this job market has been especially frustrating for them. The Labor Department said Thursday that as of June, unemployed workers 55 or older were jobless an average of nearly 30 weeks, compared with about 21 weeks for those under 55. That gap has widened during the recession: In 2006, it averaged only six weeks.

And the jobless rate for those 55 and older rose to 7 percent in June, the highest for that age group on records dating to 1948.

“This recession seems to be a little bit different” because of the “unusually large increase” in unemployment among older workers, said Richard Johnson, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and expert on retirement issues.

Now, many older workers are taking steps similar to Kellum’s, to try to minimize any role their age might play in hiring decisions. Resume-tinkering is among the most common strategies.

But some go much further.

Dozens of people showed up at a spa in Arlington, Va., in June after it promised free Botox for up to 50 unemployed people. Customers had to display a termination letter or unemployment check to receive treatment.

Mari Negron, 49, a struggling real estate agent in Arlington, Va., looking for new work, said she thinks the treatment will help her job search.

“I look refreshed,” she said, now that a worry line between her eyebrows is gone.

To avoid appearing out of touch, others are using their time between jobs to become familiar with the latest technologies and social networking sites. Sharon Armstrong, a career consultant in Washington, D.C., urged one client fearful of seeming too old to discuss her use of Twitter and Facebook during job interviews.

And she endorses the idea of keeping certain dates off resumes.

“I don’t think anyone needs to know when you graduated from college,” she said. “Don’t give people reasons to discriminate against you.”

Once at the interview stage, Armstrong urges clients to prepare for questions like, “Aren’t you overqualified?” Older job seekers say they hear that frequently. Armstrong suggests they show enthusiasm for the job and make sure not to seem to be applying out of desperation. AARP also urges older job hunters to stress their skills and achievements not their years of experience.

Experts say some employers may be reluctant to hire people they assume are less flexible, more expensive or less agile with technology. Or they fear these workers wouldn’t stay long in jobs that pay less than what they earned before, said Deborah Russell, director of workforce issues at AARP.

Such concerns “suggest age discrimination might be playing a role,” said Johnson, the Urban Institutefellow. “There is certainly evidence that suggests that employers are reluctant to hire older workers.”

Complaints of age bias to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission jumped 29 percent to 24,852 in the year that ended in September, the most recent 12-month period for which figures are available. That’s the highest such total on records dating back 16 years. The number of such complaints has continued at a high pace this year, the EEOC said.

Tina Lurie, 49, a Washington, D.C.-based broadcasting technician who was laid off in January, doesn’t respond to job listings that note, “Great for recent college graduate,” even if the job sounds like a good fit. Those employers, Lurie said, are unlikely to value her 25 years’ experience.

Companies are now more likely to make permanent job cuts than in previous recessions, economists say. Industries from autos to financial services won’t soon return to their pre-recession employment levels. That shift hurts older workers more, because skills and experience they amassed over many years in one industry are often not relevant to another.

What’s more, the severity of the recession has kept more older Americans working past the age when they hoped to retire or pulled them back into the labor force after they had left. Their 401(k)s have lost years of accumulated savings. Their home equity has shrunk. So older people are now more likely to want to keep working, even after a layoff.

During the 1981-82 recession, older workers were more likely to have pensions that enabled them to take early retirement if they were laid off, Johnson said.

Rapid changes in workplace technology may be another factor, Johnson said. Some employers fear older workers can’t keep pace.

Gregg Cygan, a 60-year old graphics consultant based near Chicago, has decades of experience with technology and was a charter member of AOL’s e-mail service. Yet he said some people consider his e-mail address out of step.

“They only think you’re hip if you have a Gmail account,” Cygan said, referring to Google’s e-mail service.

Job counselors say they remind older workers that networking is even more crucial for them than for younger job-seekers, because their resumes are sometimes undervalued.

Patricia McNally, 58, is following that advice: She’s using Web sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook. Yet one of her most effective tools is decidedly low-tech: her dog, Lola.

After being laid off from a marketing job in Washington, D.C., in December, McNally decided she could no longer afford to pay her dog-walker. Still, the dog-walker forwarded her resume to a communications start-up company. That led to an interview, and while the company isn’t yet hiring, McNally thinks she’s gained a foothold there.

“You never know where your networking’s going to come from,” she said.

For his part, Cygan refuses to make any concessions to his age.

“I am who I am,” he said.

Cygan’s been told many times that he’s overqualified for jobs he’s applied for. Now, he has a ready reply:

“If you ever replace the head of the department, then get in touch with me,” he said.

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AARP, recession, Urban Institute