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Finding a New Job After 40

A new study looks at older job seekers and the barriers they face finding work

Losing your job can be hard at any age, but it is especially brutal for older workers.

According to employment figures released by the United States Government Accountability Office, the length of time spent being unemployed has tripled for workers over the age of fifty-five, while younger workers find new jobs more quickly. Whether due to outdated job skills or age-related bias, older job seekers often find themselves being forced to drop out of the work force completely or taking jobs paying far less than what they once earned. Even when the overall unemployment rate is taken into account, older job seekers typically spend more time being unemployed than younger workers. This remains true despite the fact that older workers are the single largest segment of the labour force in most industrialized countries.

Are older job seekers really the "new unemployables" as one recent research study has suggested? While there have been numerous studies looking at the link between aging and unemployment, research focusing on why older workers have trouble finding new jobs typically focus on the psychological effects of unemployment. Other potential explanations for the longer time older job seekers spend unemployed, including whether differences in job search activities between older and younger workers may be playing a role, have been largely overlooked.

To deal with these concerns and provide a comprehensive look at the reemployment prospects of older workers, a new review article published in Psychological Bulletin examines ninety-four research studies conducted over the past two decades. A research team led by Connie Wanberg of the University of Minnesota and Ruth Kanfer of the Georgia Institute of Technology investigated the relationship between age and the time needed to find a new job as well as whether age is really a barrier in filling new jobs that become available. The researchers also looked at differences between older and young workers in terms of methods used to find a new job (including using online resources that young workers might find easier to access).

Part of the problem with comparing different research studies looking at age and unemployment is that they often differ in how they define "age" and how unemployment is measured. Does looking at how quickly a job seeker finds a new job ignore other factors that might explain why older workers might have more problems? Younger workers might be more willing to take jobs with lower pay or benefits since they have fewer family responsibilities and can afford to work their way "up the ladder" in a new company. There are also important differences in how old a worker needs to be in order to be considered "older." According to U.S. law, any worker over forty is deemed "older" though companies may be even more reluctant to hire employees who are close to retirement age. Do workers becoming increasingly unemployable in their fifties or sixties?

Based on their research results, Connie Wanberg and her colleagues were able to make the following conclusions:

  • As age increases, job seekers receive fewer new job offers and are less likely to find a new job after losing their old one. Even when they succeed in finding a job, older workers typically spend much more time being unemployed than younger workers. Even when other factors such as employee health were taken into consideration, workers over the age of fifty tended to be unemployed up to six weeks longer than workers between the ages of thirty and forty-nine and eleven weeks longer than workers under the age of thirty. Since many workers may end up taking jobs they don't actually want or may even stop looking for work completely, the actual picture for older workers may be even worse than these research findings suggest.
  • Many older workers often find themselves settling for jobs that pay less or allow for fewer work hours than their old jobs. Though these results are preliminary, older workers appear to be getting paid less than younger workers in many job settings and also reporting lower job satisfaction compared to their younger counterparts.
  • Older workers may not be putting as much effort into finding new jobs than younger workers do. This may be due to their expecting to face age discrimination or because they are using different job search strategies that may not be as effective (relying on word of mouth or newspaper ads rather than using social media).
  • The relationship between age and likelihood of finding a new job seems to depend on where you happen to live. Older job seekers appear to take longer finding new jobs in developed European countries as opposed to Eastern Europe or North America. This may be due to the more generous social welfare programs that make older workers less likely to settle for low-paying jobs and to spend more time looking for jobs that are more ideal. Wanberg and her colleagues suggest that they may also be cultural differences in attitudes about unemployment that can affect the amount of effort people put in to find new jobs.
  • Not surprisingly, the overall unemployment rate appears to be a major factor in whether older job seekers find work. When unemployment is high, younger job seekers tend to be favoured over older ones. Even when unemployment rates are low, it is hard to determine whether this is a useful measure of the true extent of unemployment as it applies to older workers. Compared to younger workers, older job seekers may be more likely to stop looking for work altogether due to their own pessimism about whether they will ever find a job and seek alternatives such as early retirement or casual work.

So what do these research results mean for older people who are searching for a new job? While age discrimination is a continuing concern as more older adults find themselves out of work due to changes in the economy, part of the problem may be due to some job seekers relying on job search methods that are out of date. Older workers may also price themselves out of the job market since younger workers often settle for entry-level salaries making them more of a bargain for employers. For companies that have mandatory retirement policies in place, many employers may prefer hiring younger workers who can be expected to stay with the company longer than older workers.

Studies such as this one can offer newly unemployed people over forty some guidance in how to find a new job. For example, older job seekers often find themselves at a disadvantage since they are not as familiar with online social platforms such as Facebook or LinkedIn which can provide them with leads on new jobs that might not appear otherwise. Older job seekers also need to make themselves more appealing to potential employers by highlighting their greater experience and maturity.

It is also important that they not give in to pessimism which may sabotage their job search efforts and put in as much effort as needed to find that new job. Finally, older workers may need to explore alternatives to conventional job seeking, including launching their own businesses if possible. Though this carries greater risk, the potential benefits may be far greater as well.

There is likely no single reason for why older workers have trouble finding new jobs which means that there are no simple solutions either. While the new economic recession is making the job market harder to navigate for workers of all ages, it is clear that finding a new job can be even more difficult for older adults. Though this can often lead to pessimism and despair for many people, changing job search strategies and investigating alternatives to conventional work can often help older job applicants succeed.