John Browning is beyond frustrated.
The Minnetonka, Minnesota, resident and Vietnam veteran lost his parking management job during the pandemic. He had countless job leads since but has only landed a part-time job despite 32 months of searching and a willingness to tackle grungy, demanding work.
He thinks it’s because of his age.
“Nobody will hire me because I am 77. As soon as they find out how old I am, it’s over,” said Browning. “Twenty-seven companies in a row turned me down. I am in good shape. I have an excellent résumé. I have no criminal record. But they want someone 27. I worry I’m going to lose my home.”
While unemployment among those 55 and older is lower than a decade ago, some seniors are complaining about their employment prospects at a time when they need some income because of inflation.
“I have heard from a lot of individuals who do have a skill-set that it is extremely difficult for them to find employment, no matter what employers say,” said Mary Jo Noehring, an employment counselor. “I hear the employers are begging for help. But those (older), who have an excellent skill-set, are not getting hired.”
Unemployment for those 55 and older rose from 2.3% in January to 2.8% in May before sliding slightly to 2.6% in June, according to the most recent U.S. household survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But whether it’s a disconnect in skills of older workers and the jobs available, the historically low unemployment rates are little comfort to those who believe they are being overlooked because of their age.
Despite federal and state laws that have been around for decades, research shows age discrimination in hiring “is huge and persistent,” said University of Minnesota employment law Prof. Charlotte Garden.
If you are unemployed because of an unexpected layoff — or even the shutdowns during the pandemic — it is harder to get hired than someone who is employed, Garden said.
“All of that is exacerbated for older workers,” she said.
During double-blind studies conducted at the National Bureau of Economic Research, economist David Neumark found that when “age is revealed simultaneously with other applicant information, job offer rates are much lower for older than for younger job applicants.”
When age wasn’t revealed to the recruiter at the time of the initial résumé review, job applicants young and old had the same chance of getting an interview.
“But after in-person interviews when age is revealed, older applicants still face a much lower job offer rate,” Neumark said. “This evidence is strongly consistent with age discrimination in hiring.”
A recent survey by the AARP found that 53% of job seekers over 50 believe ageism affects job hunts. Separately, 82% believe older workers who have jobs face age discrimination in their workplace.
“These adults report having felt ignored, not respected, and/or spoken down to because of their age,” the study said.
But with mounting costs — and the fact that many Americans do not have enough saved to retire — unemployment comes with some big penalties for older workers.
Browning nearly lost his condo until a local nursing home hired him to clean a few mornings each week. He kept looking and asking for more hours. A year later, he received more hours but still works part-time hours with split shifts seven days a week.
“It stopped most of the bleeding, and right now I am paying my bills,” Browning said, noting that he’d still prefer full-time work.
Darren Sharp, an employment attorney at Minneapolis based Schaefer Halleen, said he has taken on no more than a dozen “failure to hire” age discrimination cases, mainly because they are nearly impossible to prove. He has taken on more age-related firings cases.
“What I see is age and medical conditions leading to people getting pushed out (of jobs). And then once you are out, it’s just hard to get back in with employment at the same level,” Sharp said. “I have certainly seen younger folks who are not in their upper 50s and 60s and 70s finding jobs fairly quickly. But I have not seen that trend for my clients who are in their 60s.”
AARP Minnesota State Director Cathy McLeer said it takes workers over 50 twice as long to get a job than younger age groups. The average time without a job is six months or longer.
To shorten that window AARP has a national job board and online sessions with experts who can help job seekers “age proof” their résumés. AARP also teaches skill-building classes in digital marketing, communications and project management.
The organization also has worked with employers. About 2,500 of them have signed pledges to include older workers in their hiring process.
Interest in older workers has grown with the rise in labor shortages and baby boomer retirements, but hasn’t swelled enough to erase stories like Browning’s, she said.
Some tips for older job seekers
Robin Johnson, a lead trainer and workforce development specialist at the CareerForce Center in Bloomington, said half her clients are job seekers over 50. She works with them to update résumés for online job searches and on interviewing techniques, especially for people who were with their previous employers for a long time.
Seniors, she said, could be qualified for a job but might be using outdated terminology — or listing experience chronologically — instead of using a skills-based résumé. Once the résumé language is in check, it’s wise to post job searches on LinkedIn and other social media sites. Download résumés to job boards and share your job goals with friends and family and past co-workers, she said.
With labor shortages still hounding most industries, “companies are definitely interested in the advanced and experienced worker,” Johnson said. “Where the disconnect frequently happens is the senior worker needs to do a little bit more work to prepare, so they can say how their specific skills are going to give the employer the exact skills they need.”
Susan Schuster, who at 58 was laid off from her corporate-strategy job in May after 15 years when Blue Cross Blue Shield in Eagan, Minnesota, downsized, agrees.
Schuster said she knows of others who have taken “longer than they’d like” to land that next job, but isn’t worried about herself. She’s well sourced and is taking the time to find the right community relations job for her, while finishing her doctoral degree and speaking at international conferences.
Armed with a severance package, outplacement services and a wide network of professional associates and contacts, Schuster advises others to network now so they “have contacts before you need them” and to build confidence by using free coaching and networking groups such as the White Box Club, which was named for the boxes used by people to pack up their belongings after a layoff.
“I don’t ever intend to retire. I love working,” Schuster said. “I know (ageism) is a societal issue, but I have not experienced it. I’m not worried.”