Myth vs. Reality
Myth: Older workers are more likely to be burned out and less productive than their younger colleagues.
Reality: According to a 2009 report from the Sloan Center on Aging & Work, hiring managers gave older employees high marks for loyalty, reliability and productivity.
When Mark Simoneau finally landed a job interview last October, he had to borrow a car to get there. His rusty 16-year-old Mercury Grand Marquis needed a new transmission.
You might say Simoneau was rusty, too: He'd been either out of work or underemployed for four years. And he was 64 years old.
Simoneau's age was significant: These days, 50-plus workers like him face brutal odds if they lose their jobs. Forty-four percent of jobless workers 55 or older had been unemployed for over a year in 2012, a Pew study reported. And while older workers have a lower unemployment rate overall, the ones who lose their jobs can find the long hunt for work unbearable.
Half of unemployed workers over 62 drop out of the labor force within nine months, according to an Urban Institute study. Worse: To pay the bills, they tap their Social Security years early, permanently cutting their benefits and imperiling their retirement security.
Myths & Misperceptions
But getting people like Simoneau back to work can mean overcoming age discrimination. In a 2009 report from the Sloan Center on Aging & Work, hiring managers at state agencies listed a litany of stereotypes to explain why they tend to reject older job seekers: They felt these applicants were more likely to be burned-out, resistant to new technologies, absent due to illness, poor at working with younger supervisors and reluctant to travel.
Other studies have shown that employers assume older applicants are less creative, less productive, slower mentally and more expensive to employ than early- or mid-career employees.
But Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School of business and coauthor (with former AARP CEO Bill Novelli) of the 2010 book Managing the Older Worker, has looked more closely at these stereotypes, pulling together research from fields like economics, demography and psychology. What he determined: Virtually none of them holds up.
When it comes to actual job performance, Cappelli says, older employees soundly thrash their younger colleagues. "Every aspect of job performance gets better as we age," he declares. "I thought the picture might be more mixed, but it isn't. The juxtaposition between the superior performance of older workers and the discrimination against them in the workplace just really makes no sense."
So how does a guy like Mark Simoneau convince a potential employer to take a serious look?
After graduating from Villanova in 1970, Simoneau settled outside Boston, raised a family, earned an MBA and worked in human resources at manufacturing and construction firms. In 2007 a recruiter enticed him to leave his job and make more money at another company. But he objected to some of the firm's practices, and three months later he decided to part ways — a fateful choice.
That was in 2008, just as the Great Recession hit. At 60, Simoneau began hunting for a job.
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.