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Report: Older Workers Fight Back

Older workers are fighting back as the jobless rate increases, a new Canadian study reports.

It’s brutal in the job market for everyone, but 50-plus Canadians looking for a job are facing a particularly rough time. This, despite research that shows older workers have better skills, especially interpersonal skills. They are more conscientious and miss fewer days.

In a just released study, Dr. Ellie Berger, a professor in the department of sociology at Nipissing University (North Bay, Ontario) investigated the plight of 30 unemployed individuals aged 45 to 65 years. As well, she observed three programs for older workers in the greater Toronto area. The programs were created by Human Resources Development Canada to assist older workers in the job search.

The study group was made up an equal number of men and women. Most had college or university degrees and most were married. Participants had previously held jobs in administration, construction, consulting, education, engineering, marketing, television and film, among others. Typically, participants had been out of work from three to eight months, although a few individuals had been unemployed for up to six years.

Older workers need not apply

The study reported participants felt potential employers had little interest in what they had to offer. They said employers used various techniques to discriminate against them. The techniques reflected negative stereotypes in relation to their skills, training, flexibility and financial costs. Employers screened resumes for age, and few older workers got job interviews.

But despite feelings of discouragement, Berger found participants actively fighting back.

The study appeared in the Gerontologist (Vol. 49, No. 3, 2009).

New strategies

According to Berger, job seekers used the following strategies to combat employers’ negative attitudes:

Maintaining skills: Participants kept their job skills up-to-date, fully aware employers did not want to invest money and time in training older workers.

As one 52-year-old man put it:

They look at a person . . . as a monetary investment. They invest a certain amount of time and effort in training a new recruit – the higher the level of the recruit, the more expensive the time in training. And they expect to get back 10 times their investment, or else it isn’t worth it to them to hire them. So if they spend a year acclimatizing me, training me, getting me integrated into the system, then they would expect to get 10 years of profitable time out of me. Now, if I am 50 years old, they look at me as a poor prospect. Even at 46, they were looking at me as a very poor prospect.

Some participants, however, found it difficult or even impossible to access training. As one 53-year-old explained:

I need the qualifications, but I need the money to get the qualifications. . . . It’s kind of like a catch-22. It’s very similar to the 17-year-old fresh out of high school who can’t get a job because he doesn’t have any experience and doesn’t have any experience because he can’t get a job. It is the same kind of catch-22, only 35 years later.

As a result, some participants turned to volunteer work to gain experience. Others took advantage of programs for older worker. “I never really used the Internet very much where I worked ’cause you know, you were busy with your other things,” said one 62-year-old man. “The older worker program spent a lot of time on computer skills, like using Word and getting on the Internet.”

Changing expectations: The study reported one-third of participants changed their employment goals, while looking for a job. A majority of participants considered a change in career or industry to gain reentry into the workforce.

One 50-year-old male said:

The frustration is immense because you keep sending your résumés back out to the same people. . . . I’ve been about 18 months out of work, and a couple of months ago I decided I’ve got to switch this trade. That’s when I considered bar-tending. . . .Then I decided on this building maintenance course. . . . But it is hard knowing that no matter what industry I go into now, I’ll never make that kind of money again.

Some participants dropped the search for a full-time job, settling for part-time or contract work. As one 60-year-old woman said, “I would accept part-time work, and at the moment I’m doing some consulting work for a boutique; it gets me out of the house.”

In addition, a majority of participants lowered their salary expectations. A 56-year-old man said:

I’m willing to try anything, and I’m not asking 30 dollars an hour, what I used to make before, I am not asking that. . . . I’m not picky. I’m not asking this kind of wages, minimum wage is going to do it. I’m going to be there. I’m going to try.

Yet another male participant, 52, said:

You know I’m not an entry-level person, and I don’t expect an entry-level kind of remuneration. Not that money is the most important thing to me – satisfaction to me is as important or more important at this stage of my life than money.

As well, many job seekers were willing to leave their communities to find work.

A 59-year-old woman said:

Don’t just depend on Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton or York because there is nothing out there. And you gotta have your mind made up to want to leave your home and be traveling wherever the job is. . . .You have to try all different angles.

Concealing age: According to the study, participants felt employers examined their résumés and chose candidates to interview in a discriminatory fashion.

“I try to hide my experience. Sometimes I don’t mention my degree and that sort of thing, and I only show the last 10 years of work experience,” one 60-year-old man said.

Older workers programs also encouraged participants to de-emphasize their age. As one woman, 58, explained:

At the older worker program they helped me modify my résumé – to de-emphasize age. . . . They would tell us don’t give employers any more information, basically, than is necessary. Like sort of give them your last 10 years of work, let them see you versus, you know, putting down everywhere you’ve worked for the last 30 years or 40 years.

“Improving” appearances: The study also reported the majority of participants altered their physical appearance to project a more “youthful” image, while on the job hunt.

For example, many men and women coloured their hair prior to an important interview. “When I actually get an interview, I dye my hair,” one 50-year-old man said.

Similarly, a 58-year old female noted:

When you look around you and you see the faces getting younger and younger, you know you’ve got to keep it up. Even if you can’t afford it, that’s the one thing you need is your bottle of dye.

However, some participants balked at changing their appearance. Take this 53-year-old woman:

I have grey hair and I refuse on general principle to dye my hair. I don’t want to cater to this. . . . I can see the reaction of people to somebody who has dyed hair – you know they dye their hair blond or whatever – they tend to think of them as younger and prettier and so on, and I refuse to do it. I’m stubborn that way. It’s costing me, I know, but I don’t believe in catering to that. I don’t believe the color of your hair should be an influence on how people treat you.

No quick fixes

The study suggests, “More needs to be done to assist older individuals in their search for reemployment.” But change is likely to be slow, because the problem is a societal one. As Berger notes, “It is only by combating age discrimination on a broader societal level that the age-related management strategies used by participants will no longer be necessary.”