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AARP The Magazine

The Surprising Truth About Older Workers

Here’s one: Their strengths can make them the most valuable people in the office

Real World Realities

As a human resources pro, Simoneau knew that employers would have trouble looking past his white hair or the date of his college degree. But he also knew to avoid the common mistakes of older job seekers.

He kept his computer skills sharp and started an account on the social media site LinkedIn. Most critically, he joined professional groups, went to association dinners, emailed and phoned contacts, and sometimes met them for coffee.

"It's hard not to withdraw," says Simoneau. "That's something you've got to fight."

Simoneau sent out five to 10 applications a week and landed a few callbacks. To make ends meet, he found temporary jobs — one in sales, another a low-paying position with a nonprofit. And he tried to stay positive.

Indeed, Simoneau had cause for optimism: Employers do find positive traits in seasoned workers. For example, those same state-agency managers who fretted about late-career burnout balanced their negative perceptions with several sunnier ones, giving high marks for loyalty, reliability and having a deeper network of contacts than younger workers do.

Older workers also score high in leadership, detail-oriented tasks, organization, listening, writing skills and problem solving — even in cutting-edge fields like computer science.

A new study from North Carolina State University found that older programmers knew a wider variety of topics than younger colleagues did, answered questions better and were more adept at certain newer systems.

"We think that if you're familiar with older technology," says study coauthor Emerson Murphy-Hill, "you're better able to understand new technology."

Also, Cappelli says, older workers tend to be motivated by causes like community, mission and a chance to make the world a better place; younger workers are more driven by factors that directly benefit themselves, such as money and promotions.

But perhaps the greatest asset older workers bring is experience — their workplace wisdom. They've learned how to get along with people, solve problems without drama and call for help when necessary.

That's what Erin Barbarino, 54, is proving in her new job with Sphere Offshore Solutions, a Houston marine-services firm that helps move oil and gas drilling rigs. Barbarino was laid off from her energy-industry job in the summer of 2012 but was hired by Sphere that September. She brought with her a wealth of contacts with specialized knowledge — a key strength because she's involved in assembling crews quickly, and in her business a bad hire can mean an ecological disaster.

"I know people all over the globe I can call," Barbarino says. "They're all older workers, many in their 70s. These are the people who have the experience we need."

Next page: With age comes ability. »

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STARTING OVER: Older workers are reinventing their careers due to long-term unemployment.

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