Older worker unemployment has increased dramatically since the recession. The unemployment rate for workers age 55 and older increased from 3.1 percent in December 2007 to a high of 7.6 percent in February 2010, before dropping to 6 percent in December 2011.
While older employees are less likely to be laid off than their younger counterparts, it generally takes older job seekers longer to find new employment. The median duration of unemployment for older workers was 35 weeks in 2011, compared with 26 weeks for younger employees. And 55 percent of unemployed older workers spent more than 27 weeks actively seeking a new job in 2011, up from less than a quarter in 2007.
A recent Government Accountability Office report examines the barriers to employment for people who were laid off at age 55 or later. Here's why unemployed older workers are having difficulty finding new jobs:
High salary expectations. Some employers may be reluctant to hire people who earned a high salary at a previous position, according to employment experts, workforce professionals, and focus group participants interviewed by GAO. "Employers may expect that an older worker who accepts a job paying significantly less than the worker had previously earned might continue to search for a higher-paying job and might leave the job if a better offer became available," according to the report. GAO suggests that older workers "learn how to present their skills and experiences to potential employers in a way that does not draw attention to their age, extensive years of experience, and past high-level positions."
Younger bosses. Hiring managers may believe that older employees would be unhappy working for a younger or less experienced supervisor. Workers who previously held a management position could have difficultly adapting to a lower-level job. Older job seekers should develop interview responses that can diffuse employer concerns about hiring older workers. Consider pointing out why you would be a good fit at the company, that you are willing to work for less pay than you received in the past, and that you are comfortable reporting to a younger manager and working collaboratively with people of all ages.
Out of date skills. Employers are increasingly requiring job seekers to submit applications and resumes online. Older workers who lack computer and other technology skills have a disadvantage in finding work. "Employers are in a position to select from a bounty of highly skilled, well-educated, and most cost-effective applicants," says Joseph Carbone, president and CEO of The WorkPlace, a workforce development firm in Bridgeport, Conn. "Without ongoing efforts to keep skills current during protracted periods of unemployment, the less marketable a person becomes."
If you can't find a job, consider volunteer work or taking continuing education classes so that you won't have gaps in your resume and will learn new skills. "Many older unemployed workers simply need help navigating today's web-based job search landscape," says Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. "For other older workers displaced after many years with a single employer or within a single industry, the key to improving employment prospects may be as straightforward as a course in the latest version of Microsoft Office, or as intensive as getting credentialed in a new occupation."
Expensive health benefits. Some employers are reluctant to hire older workers because they expect providing health benefits to older workers to be costly, GAO found.
Retirement expectations. Employers might hesitate to train older workers because they assume that older employees will retire soon, and fail to give the employer a good return on the training investment. Try to make it clear in the interview that retirement is still in the distant future. "At this point, I don't really expect to retire, even if I am able to find a job. I plan to keep working as long as I am physically able, and I am blessed to be in good health," Sheila Whitelaw, 71, told the Senate Special Committee on Aging at a recent hearing about older worker unemployment. She has been looking for work in Philadelphia, Pa. since January 2010. "Contrary to what many employers think, age is just a number. My age does not define my ability, negate my work experience, or reduce my dedication to the job at hand."
Visible frustration. Long-term unemployment makes some older workers discouraged and depressed. Workforce professionals told GAO that discouraged job seekers may show up at interviews looking disheveled or become short-tempered. Don't let your job-search frustration show during interviews or take it out on the hiring manager. It's not the prospective employer's fault you were laid off, and they have the ability to end your unemployment.
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