Challenges to Finding a Job Later in Life

New research shows how and why reemployment is harder as we get older.

Posted Mar 11, 2016

Unsplash/Pixabay
Source: Unsplash/Pixabay

While employment seems to have improved from its worst point in recent years, millions of Americans continue to struggle to find work. According to the latest jobs report that the Bureau of Labor and Statistics put out earlier this month, 7.8 million American workers don't have a job, and an additional 1.8 million have basically given up hopes of finding one. 

Job loss can be especially devastating later in life. Older workers face not only the challenge of having fewer years to work before reaching retirement age, but often have a harder time finding reemployment. 

A major study came out this year that examined the issue of "age and reemployment success after job loss." The authors did a "meta-analysis" of 94 studies, which involves combining the results from all relevant studies to determine what they seem to show on the whole. They addressed five questions, and I'll review what they found for each one:

1. How strong is the link between age and how long it takes to find work again?

Based on their analyses, the odds that older workers would be reemployed was 42% lower than for younger people. Similar numbers were reported for "reemployment speed," which makes sense given that older workers were less likely to find employment at all during the periods of time included in the studies.

In the words of the authors, these effects are "moderate to strong"—in other words, they're a pretty big deal for older workers who need a job.

It's important to note that the cutoff between younger and older workers was defined as 40 years of age, which is the legal definition of older workers in the US. It's likely that the effects of age would be even stronger for workers in their 50s, 60s, and beyond, a point that we'll return to later.

2. Does age have a negative effect on other aspects of reemployment, like how well the job fits the person's abilities?

Obviously simply finding a job is not the only indication of reemployment success. The study also showed that older workers get fewer job offers vs. younger workers, and have less job satisfaction in their new jobs. Importantly, the jobs that older workers find tend to be lower paying, which could explain at least in part the older workers' lower job satisfaction.

skeeze/Pixabay
Source: skeeze/Pixabay

Interestingly there was no significant link between age and number of interviews or the workers's perception of how well the job suits him or her. So while it seems that older job applicants are getting as many interviews as their younger counterparts, they are less likely to be hired. A plausible interpretation is that age discrimination is more likely to occur at the interview stage, since age may be more apparent in person than based on a résumé. 

3. Is part of the link between reemployment success and age driven by how older persons go about their job search? For example, are older persons less likely to leverage social networking to assist their efforts?

Given that age discrimination does occur, the authors' third question should not be taken as "blaming the victim." Rather, the authors were interested in seeing if certain job search behaviors might put older workers at a disadvantage. Identifying these behaviors could lead to ways to make older workers more effective at finding jobs.

The researchers determined that, on average, older workers feel less confident in their ability to find work (what the authors call "job search self-efficacy"), and put less effort into their job searches. Further analyses showed that these factors partially accounted for the relationship between age and reemployment outcomes.

These attitudes and behaviors could be driven at least in part by older workers' fears that potential employers won't hire them based on their age, leading to greater discouragement and a sense of "Why bother? No one's going to hire me anyway...." 

4. How generalizable is the link between age and reemployment success? For example, do we find it even when employment rates are very high or very low?

Interestingly, the effect of age on reemployment was significantly stronger during the 1990s than the 2000s; the authors do not suggest a possible explanation.

They also found geographic differences in the link between age and reemployment, with worse outcomes for individuals in North America and Eastern Asia compared to Europe and Australia. The authors conclude that additional work needs to be done to understand what cultural and political differences might account for these discrepancies across continents.

There was one additional and important effect that the meta-analysis revealed: In times of high unemployment, age is more strongly linked to lower job search self-efficacy among older unemployed workers. Thus when job prospects are especially bad, older workers are likely to be especially discouraged about their prospects for finding a job.

Seth J. Gillihan

Linear relationship between reemployment success and age, with a constant rate of decreasing success with increasing age

Source: Seth J. Gillihan

5. Finally, is the association between age and reemployment success "linear"? In other words, does reemployment success decrease at a relatively constant rate, so that a straight line on a graph would best describe the relationship between age and reemployment? (See graph at left.)

If the association is linear, we would expect a relatively constant rate of decreased reemployment success with increased age. However, the authors found evidence that several reemployment outcomes fell off more sharply with increasing age. For example, job search efforts decreased more and more with greater age, as did the likelihood of getting hired.

In other words, the difference in reemployment outcomes was greater, for example, between 50- and 60-year-olds than between 40- and 50-year-olds. See graph below. 

Seth J. Gillihan

Non-linear relationship between reemployment success and age, with an accelerating rate of decreasing success with increasing age

Source: Seth J. Gillihan

Conclusions

Taken together, these findings present real causes for concern. Is there any reason to be optimistic about the job prospects of older workers?

Fortunately these results suggest that there are factors within the control of older workers that could raise their chances for reemployment. In particular, the intensity of one's job search efforts can improve one's job prospects. It's also important for older workers to have the training they need to feel confident about their job search abilities, given the significant link between job search self-efficacy and reemployment outcomes.