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The Surprising Truth About Older Workers

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

spinner image Mark Simoneau older worker;The Surprising Truth About Older Workers
Until landing a good job in 2012, Mark Simoneau, now 65, was out of work or underemployed for four years.
Dave Lauridsen

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.

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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.

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."

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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."

With Age Comes Ability

Experience also helps older workers compensate for the physical and mental changes that accompany aging. Younger workers enjoy a reputation as adept task-switchers who can better juggle the technological distractions of the modern office.


But according to neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, M.D., at the University of California, San Francisco, "multitasking" is a misnomer. The brain can't actually do two things at once, he says. Instead, it switches from one task to the other, and with every switch there's a slight delay, or "cost." And the cost increases as we age.

Gazzaley's research, however, shows that this cognitive decline starts in the early 20s, and physical exercise can slow or even halt the decline. Given the wide variations between people, he says, a smart, active 75-year-old could score higher on cognitive tests than a 40-year-old slouch on the couch.

And an experienced worker can easily steer around this "sea of distractions" by closing the office door and turning off email. (Always-on younger colleagues could be less likely to embrace the idea of unplugging.)

That may explain why older workers might score low on cognitive tests in laboratories but show no drop-off in their job performance or rate of workplace accidents. "It comes with experience," says Wharton's Cappelli. "More experienced workers are more careful."

Bottom line: The human brain is adaptable, and we can learn skills throughout our lives if given the opportunity.

A case in point is Rosa Gibson, 66, of San Diego. She lost her job managing a retail clothing store when it closed in 2005. "Once I got over the shock," she says, "I decided to try something different."

Gibson started volunteering with Scripps Health, a nonprofit health care system in Southern California; there she used her bilingual skills in community outreach. Several years and many classes later, she's now earning a bachelor's degree in public health and working as a clinical trials assistant.

"I may be 80 by the time I get my degree at the rate I'm going, but that's OK," she says. "Everybody out there has something to teach you."

What about creativity and innovation, often cited as key strengths of younger employees? While it's true that young minds may produce a higher volume of ideas, business guru Frans Johansson argues in his book The Medici Effect that creativity comes more from making connections among diverse thoughts: The more knowledge you have, the more connections you can make.

For example, Kay Hall, 56, was able to creatively recycle her sales skills when she found a job at a law firm in Seattle. Now she looks for service opportunities for the firm's clients, using data-analysis techniques learned on her old job. "It was completely innovative for the legal field," she says.

Even in physically demanding fields, older employers have advantages, according to a study published in 2011. Researchers at the University of Mannheim, in Germany, studied teams of workers at a BMW plant. They found that productivity increased consistently as workers aged, right up to mandatory retirement, then at age 65. That's because veterans knew where to focus their efforts to deal with unexpected problems and prevent the most costly mistakes.

spinner image Rosa Gibson (Dave Lauridsen)
Rosa Gibson's job loss in her late 50s led her to pursue a degree and new career.
Dave Lauridsen

The Power of Patience

Mark Simoneau can identify with the BMW study's findings. "The patience you develop as you get older helps you deal with stressful situations," he says. "A crisis comes up and rather than getting emotional you're more likely to think, 'This too shall pass.' When you can be dispassionate about a problem, it's easier to see what's urgent and where to put your resources."


Simoneau's networking paid off in 2012, when a consultant told him about a social services agency that was looking for a human resources director. He gave the consultant his résumé and cover letter — and got an interview.

So, on a cloudy, late-fall day, Simoneau put on his best charcoal-blue suit, borrowed his stepdaughter's Hyundai and drove more than an hour from his home near Worcester, Massachusetts, to the Wakefield office of Emarc, a nonprofit that serves adults with developmental disabilities.

Simoneau was at peace about his age. "I can't make myself younger, and I wasn't going to try," he says. For 90 minutes — longer than he'd expected — he met with the company's executive director and the chief financial officer.

He thought he'd nailed the interview but knew that they were also talking to others and wondered about his chances. A day later, he got a callback. This time, he talked for over an hour with the executive director. A few days later he was formally offered the position.

The salary? Well, it wasn't what he'd been earning before. But that was no surprise.

"You have to understand the constraints of the organization, and I did," Simoneau says. He took the job. That night he celebrated modestly — by taking his wife out to dinner at Ruby Tuesday.

Simoneau has been back at work for nearly a year. At 65 he could be retired and collecting benefits. But what he's realized, he says, is that "I'm a worker." He enjoys solving problems, helping coworkers and passing on his knowledge to others. That, as it turns out, is a good thing, and not just for his new employer.

Letting people work longer, economists agree, boosts overall employment and gives the whole economy a little more gas: Last year a tow truck took away Simoneau's old Mercury. He had bought himself an almost new Ford Focus.

Nathaniel Reade is a freelance writer.

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