Positive Attitude is Key For Older Workers and Job-Seekers

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by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.

Age discrimination is real. We know it anecdotally from readers we’ve heard from who’ve been blatantly discriminated against because they’re older. We know it from legal cases, such as a complaint brought by AARP, the advocacy group for older Americans, against an executive-search firm that screened out candidates over 45 at the request of some clients. And we know it from statistics (see box, “By the Numbers,” at the end of this article).

To make matters worse, age discrimination, which can begin as early as 40, seems to be much more subtly acceptable than, say, gender or racial bias. While complaints of age-related discrimination are rising, complaints about most other forms of job discrimination are not, reports Newsday.

As real and as painful as it is, however, age discrimination can best be fought with an upbeat attitude. If you feel yourself bumping up against the “grey ceiling,” here are some of the ways you can empower yourself with an optimistic outlook:

  • Don’t be a victim and don’t panic. “If you’re feeling sorry for yourself or holding a grudge . . . you probably won’t get meaningful work,” says John Carney, who runs a placement agency specializing in mature workers, as quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
  • Tap into “Boomer Power.” If you were born between 1946 and 1964, no one has to tell you you’re a Baby Boomer. You’ve always had economic clout, and you’ll continue to do so in the workforce simply because there aren’t enough workers in the succeeding generations to do the work that needs to be done. John Izzo, a retention consultant quoted by Patricia Kitchen in Newsday, notes that “employers would be scrambling without those Boomers, who now fill so many key positions.” That will especially be true in three to four years, Izzo says, when Boomers begin to take early retirement. “When Baby Boomers leave the workplace, industries are going to be crippled,” says AARP’s John Forrest, as quoted on HR.com.
  • A number of experts also note that Boomers will redefine aging the way they’ve redefined so much of life at the turn of this millennium. As keynote speaker at the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), Ken Dychtwald, a highly regarded gerontology researcher and author (Age Power: How the 21st Century will Be Ruled By the New Old) pointed out that retiring Boomers will likely “transform old age as they’ve transformed everything else.” In the past, he said, we retired our “old folks” because of health reasons (they didn’t live much longer), and we had plenty of young folks to take their place. Now, the Boomers may live much longer and healthier and many may want to continue working — in a much different way than they did before. They have the ability (and clout) as a group to redefine work to fit themselves — and after all — there won’t be many alternatives for employers in need of talent.

    Global workplace consulting firm Drake Beam Morin predicts that the career choices and challenges of an increasingly older labor pool will have a profound impact on organizations’ strategies for securing and developing talent in the coming decade. Every aspect of human resource management will be affected, including hiring, professional development, retention practices, and career management and transition tactics, further demonstrating the Boomers’ strength in numbers.

    Remember, too, as Sue Shellenberger notes in the Wall Street Journal, that it was the Baby-Boomer generation that in the 1980s began pressing for child-care help, flexible scheduling, and other work-family supports. Even earlier, they fought for civil rights and the end of the Vietnam War. Boomers are a strong and powerful voice. “Failure to include mature workers in the work force is something this age group is not going to accept,” said Donald L. Davis, vice president for work force development at the National Council on the Aging, in an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

  • Keep your energy level up. Some young whippersnappers don’t want to hire older folks because they think they’ll be slow, plodding, and drag the work unit down with their lack of productivity. Keep yourself healthy and fit. Eat right and get enough sleep so you can be bursting with energy when you meet with young hiring managers.
  • Embrace change. Another reason younger hiring managers resist hiring oldsters is their belief that older workers are set in their ways and not open to new ways of doing things. Convey that you are versatile, adaptable, and ready to do things differently. Expertise grounded in decades of experience may have limited value in a world where new theories, technologies, and concepts keep emerging and old ones keep changing and evolving. A mindset that says “the way I learned to do things 30 years ago is best” probably won’t fly, especially with a younger hiring manager who may not have even learned some of the theories that the older job-seeker is talking about. By focusing on change, older workers will be much more successful. And the more technical the job, the more important flexibility and willingness to learn are.
  • Keep your spirits up through inspiration from those who believe that top thinkers don’t hit the peak of their mental capability until deep into old age. See HR.com’s article, When I’m 64.
  • Rail against the myths. Always bear in mind that most of the stereotypes about older workers simply aren’t true. Lisa B. Song of Knight Ridder News Service reported that a survey last year by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA found, for example, that IT workers 45 years and older were rated as better problem-solvers and communicators and equivalent to younger workers on technical knowledge and teamwork skills. Read other myths about older workers.
  • Face the fact that some unenlightened organizations simply won’t hire you if you’re “of a certain age,” and you’re better off not fighting them. Instead, put your energy into seeking out the companies who welcome your work ethic and maturity. Companies who discriminate against older workers are to be pitied because they will face serious worker shortages as the population ages. As David R. Francis writes in The Christian Science Monitor, “economists and officials [in all industrial nations] figure their countries will need older workers to prosper and can’t afford discrimination.”
  • See also Approaches for Older Workers Who Can’t Find a Job and Resume, Cover Letter, and Interview Strategies for Older Workers.

By the Numbers

58 percent of 200 respondents in a survey say they have experienced an increase in age discrimination during the past five years; 80 percent say today’s layoffs are putting older workers at even greater risk; and 60 percent believe age discrimination in hiring has increased in the last five years.
ExecuNet, an Internet-based career services center for executives

The number of age-discrimination complaints has soared in the past 18 months, reflecting corporate America’s determination to cut costs by weeding out many of its highest-paid workers. Last year, as the economy began to cool, 16,000 people filed age-discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, up 2,000 from the year before and the highest number since 1995. Complaints for the first six months of fiscal 2001 were up 15 percent from the same period last year, the EEOC says. Age claims made up 22.5 percent of total bias charges.
— Robert Manor and T. Shawn Taylor, Chicago Tribune

Laid-off workers in their 50s have only a 75 percent chance of returning to work within two years of a job loss.
— National Bureau of Economic research, quoted in the Wall Street Journal

There were about 15.5 million 55-year-olds in 1994. By 2005, that number will increase to 22.1 million. In 2030, it is expected that there will be 107.6 million 55+ in the U.S.

There are more than 33 million people older than 65 in the U.S.; in 2030, there will be more than 70 million.
Daytona Beach News Journal

We have almost 60 million Americans who are 55 and older today. They are followed by the 76 million Baby Boomers who begin to reach 55 this year.
— William K. Zinke, president of Human Resource Services Inc., a consulting firm in Boulder, CO, quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Seven Baby Boomers will turn 50 every minute in the United States from now until 2014.
American Demographics, quoted by Katherine Lee on HR.com

The decade 2000 through 2010 will see the largest group of workers in history move into the age range of 45 to 69 . . . In California, 45 percent of the working population will be classified as older workers by 2010.
— Allan Schweyer on HR.com

The number of workers 45-64 will grow faster than any other through 2006, while the number of workers ages 25-34 will decline by nearly 3 million.
— M. Lee Smith Publishers on HR.com

By 2005, people aged 55 and over are projected to be nearly 20 percent of the working age population compared to 12.5 percent in 1990.
— Susan Imei, ERIC Clearinghouse

The 17/37 gap: More children were born in the 17 years right after World War II — 1945 to 1962 — than were born in the 37 years that followed.
— John Izzo, a retention consultant, quoted by Patricia Kitchen in Newsday

In a survey of 200 IT managers conducted by Information Week, a business technology magazine, only 2 percent of managers would hire an applicant with more than 10 years of experience, the survey found, while almost half of them preferred to hire a worker with four to 10 years of experience.
— Lisa B. Song, Knight Ridder News Service

A 1998 study by the AARP concluded that fully 80 percent of Boomers believe that they will continue to work during retirement, and only 16 percent expect not to work for pay at all during their retirement years.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In a survey of 232 private and public-sector employers, 36 percent were hiring back retirees as consultants and independent contractors without benefits, and 37 percent were hiring them back for part-time and temporary assignments.
— Anna Rappaport, for the William M. Mercer consulting firm, quoted in the New York Times

Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.

Katharine Hansen, PhD, QuintCareers.com Creative Director Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.

Have you seen all our career and job resources for older workers? Go to: Job and Career Resources for Mature and Older Job-Seekers (Including the Baby Boomers).

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