Seasoned but slighted by the market

Older job seekers say it feels like an age of ‘no elders need apply’

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / May 7, 2011

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NORWOOD — One by one, job seekers in their 50s and 60s went around the room at the Employment & Training Resources center, lamenting the difficulties of looking for work in a market flooded with younger talent.

A former apartment manager said young interviewers seemed intimidated by her. An electrical contractor with 30 years’ experience revealed to the group that he was replaced by a 21-year-old. Many of them felt slighted by prospective employers.

A number of older job seekers are finding that their age is working against them during this painfully slow recovery. People age 55 and older are unemployed for a year on average — more than two months longer than younger workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some employers are scared away by the higher pay and health care costs that can come with hiring older workers, as well as the perception that an older hire may not be motivated to learn new skills.

Michael Small, a 50-year-old Kittery, Maine, resident who has been looking for a full-time information technology job for six years, imagines prospective employers thinking: “He’s an old dog. I can’t teach him new tricks.’’

The US economy added far more jobs than expected last month, according to data released yesterday by the Labor Department, but there are still more than 13 million people out of work. The unemployment rate for workers over age 55 is lower than the overall national average, partly due to the number of people in that age bracket who decide to retire, but those forced out of work before their planned retirement, and who don’t have enough to live on, are putting added strain on the government and the economy.

From 2007 to 2009, the number of 63-year-olds filing early for Social Security jumped by nearly 20 percent, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. Among 62-year-olds, it was up 42 percent. Not only are those people collecting less money, they’re also not paying taxes on employment income and are more likely to apply for other government aid, said director Andrew Sum.

“Throwing these older workers out of the labor market comes at a very high cost,’’ he said.

Those older people who are still employed are staying on the job longer than they used to. In 1995, only 12 percent of people surveyed in a Gallup Poll said they planned to work beyond age 65; in 2010, that number had risen to 34 percent.

Peter Honig, 53, lost his job as vice president of engineering three years ago when the New Hampshire security systems company he was working for folded. During a year-long job search in which he failed to land a single interview, Honig was at an alumni event where he realized that every person over the age of 50 — about a dozen in all — were unemployed.

“The typical story was, ‘I got replaced by somebody who was younger, who had a lower salary,’ ’’ said Honig, of Concord, who eventually gave up the job search and is getting his doctorate.

One big hurdle for older job seekers is the resistance of some to change, said Douglas Cole, a career adviser at the Employment & Training Resources center in Marlborough. One 57-year-old looking for work in the quality control field told him, “I’m too old to go to school.’’ After Cole convinced him to take training courses, the man landed a job.

Even those eager to update their skills have found that the learning curve is steep. Jim Elliott, 53, of Hyde Park, took classes in website design after losing his job in semiconductor engineering, but he noticed younger students seemed to have an intuitive grasp on technology. “It’s integrated into their DNA,’’ said Elliott. But, he noted, older students tended to grasp the big picture more quickly.

Another major obstacle older workers face is particularly formidable: themselves. For instance, most companies and recruiters use social media to find job candidates, but only 13 percent of unemployed workers over 55 use sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, compared with 28 percent of younger workers, according to the 2010 report The New Unemployables by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College.

Calling attention to their age during interviews can also be an issue. Job counselors coach them not to think, “I could be her father,’’ or start sentences by saying, “At my age.’’

“It’s that self-doubt issue: ‘Am I beyond an age where I can get the attention of the people who’ve got the jobs?’ ’’ said Elliott Hipp, pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Needham, who started a support group frequented by hundreds of unemployed people over the past few years, nearly all of whom have been over 50.

Their decades of work experience, and the accompanying rise in pay, are major factors working against older job seekers. Career advisers tell them to “age-proof’’ their resumes by removing college graduation dates, eliminating phrases such as “25 years of experience,’’ and detailing only their most recent 10 to 15 years of work. Alana Hoffman-McIalwain, author of “Sage Advice: Fantasy Packages, the Faces of Aging and Employment,’’ has recommended that older job seekers dye their gray hair to increase their odds of being hired.

“I think that age discrimination is alive and well,’’ she said.

When they do get a job offer, older workers often have to agree to a much bigger cut in salary. Workers above age 60 were paid $300 a week less on average when they were rehired, compared to $125 less for the overall labor market, according to 2007-2009 data analyzed by Northeastern’s labor market center.

Prospective employers are careful not to talk about age, but older job seekers hear it just the same. Alyse Winston, 57, of Needham, who is looking for work in software quality assurance, had one interviewer tell her: “We really do well with recent college graduates. They have the energy and the momentum, and we can train them our way.’’

Others have been asked when they plan to retire. David Foster, 68, of Norfolk, whose job in consumer packaging was outsourced, plans to work for two more years — a fact he knows could make him a less attractive candidate. “It’s an issue,’’ he said.

Experienced workers say employers are forgetting about the wealth of information and skills they have developed over decades in the workforce. Such time-tested employees bring calm confidence to the workplace, said Tracy Burns-Martin, executive director of the Northeast Human Resources Association.

“They’re not running up and down the hall with their hair on fire,’’ she said.

Small remembers when a Lotus spreadsheet showed up on a 3 1/2-inch floppy disk at the Newton collection agency where he worked in IT and he called on his experience to open it.

“No one else that I worked with knew what to do,’’ said Small, who used to make nearly $70,000 a year and is currently making considerably less as a security guard. “Have I completely given up? No. Am I very disheartened because the older I get, the news is just not good? Yes.’’

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at