AGE DISCRIMINATION — The Statistics are In, and It May Not Be “You”

When a person over the age of 50 loses a  job, it is natural and obvious for a Human Resources consultant to view the job history and focus on the one thing that the worker and consultant can change — the profile of the worker.  More training, a better resume, a new look, some better “people” skills, and new interviewing skills can all help.  Moreover, those are things all within the worker’s control.  When you’re down, the impulse is to DO SOMETHING.  Following that impulse can make one feel better, more in control, and provide a positive outlook that translates to a brightness and warmth during job interviews that will translate well.  This positive outlook can even be transmitted in the way one composes a cover letter and the word choices the worker adopts in resumes.

However, it is discouraging to go through all of those processes and realize over time that the percentage of interviews is not increasing, or the percentage of second interviews is not increasing, and certainly the percentage of offers is not increasing.  Sometimes, it is uncomfortable to confront the reality that, “it isn’t you.”

The New York Times published an article on Sunday, February 3, 2013 (available on-line) supporting this reality with the statistics available from the federal Department of Labor for the post-recession hiring data.  The reality is that the bounce-back after losing a job for a person in their fifties, most definitely, is statistically low.  One woman in her early fifties is quoted as saying, “they see the gray hair…” and it’s over.  The fact is, most employers are savvy enough to not say, “You look kind of old for this position,” but the reality is that older workers are not favored, for a variety of reasons mentioned in the article.

I will mention another reason, and that is that older workers can be, or are perceived to be, less flexible.  While I personally enjoy working with folks my own age, and enjoy the wisdom that years of experience bring, I know that my own attitude has changed dramatically away from “I’ll scrub the toilet if you say it’s part of my job description” to “I don’t think so.”  With added years come a sense of some entitlement.  However, many older workers do not have that attitude, and it is unfair to blanketly assume that they will not be as eager to follow directives, take instruction, or learn new skills.

What are your options?  A good HR consultant will already have assisted you with: (1) confronting that bias head-on, both in your cover letter and in your resume.  Use specific language that highlights learning new technology, new skills, and seeking out new assignments and information.   (2) Highlighting very recent achievements, even classes that you have taken outside the work place, even if it is yoga or karate.  (3) Emphasizing your ability to work with and take direction from all levels of the team, and to get along with a very diverse work place.  While some people think of diversity in terms of racial or religious contexts, you can specifically state that your last work place had a diverse group of all ages (if that is true).

If you still meet with resistance, consider starting your own consulting business.  DO NOT do this without getting some legal assistance up front.  An hour with an attorney to help you understand the differences between true employment and independent consulting is important.  Without this, you cannot possibly know how to accurately and yet competitively price your services.  In addition to meeting with an attorney, understand that the law on this — while fairly uniform under federal statutes — is NOT uniform under state laws.  Simply reading up on the internet has led many a person to make critical mistakes.

Being your own boss is sometimes not easy, but for many workers, failure is not an option.  Retirement at age 66 may still be over ten years away.  Working to generate business, send out invoices, track payments, market and advertise, stay on top of assignments, etc. are all part of the turf that may be very new to somebody that has been “in corporate” for over twenty years.  But those years of experience are valuable.  The company that did not want the older employee may be willing to pay a premium for that expertise, without the potential headache of dealing with the new employee who won’t take direction from the younger manager.  Of course, the consultant almost always bows to the directive of the client — there is no question who holds the reigns of power in that relationship.

Additionally, the issues of benefits, insurance premiums, taxes, and other employment hassles do not exist with the independent consultant relationship.  Instead, there are delicate matters of confidentiality, intellectual property, non-compete agreements, bonuses for hitting targets or deadlines early, and other matters that are a “given” with true employees in some industries that must be negotiated with truly independent contractors.  But sometimes, the only thing to fear IS fear itself.  Take the initiative, and give it a try.  If YOU are willing to invest in you…eventually, others will too.