Older workers feel the squeeze

Mark Swartz - article for Workopolis
March 2, 2004

Sprouting any grey hairs lately? Is that a new wrinkle I see? If you're over 40, this kind of stuff is natural. Why then do so many hiring managers treat us like we're Geritol addicts who should pass our waning days playing pinochle in the park?

It's even more bizarre when you look at the numbers: The 40 - 69 age group makes up more than a third of our population. By 2011, that'll jump to 13.5 million people - more than 40 per cent of Canadians!

A few weeks ago I mentioned the Statistics Canada figure that fully 60 per cent of all job gains in 2003 went to people 55 and older. That's 160,000 out of 270,000. If so, it's not reflected in the buzz from the street, which is saying it's harder than ever for "mature workers" to get hired.

"It's a huge, huge problem," says Graham Carver, president of Cambridge Management Planning, an executive search and outplacement boutique in mid-town Toronto. Carver suggests there are too many people chasing too few jobs. Mergers and acquisitions have led to a decrease in mid- and senior-level positions with larger firms.

Also, a number of companies have shifted decision-making to their home offices, whether in the United States or abroad. Add to that how existing employees are being squeezed for every ounce of productivity - and you're left with slimmer pickings. On top of this, "Employers are deliberately bringing in younger workers, say in their 30s or early 40s, to groom them for succession into senior management," says Carver.

All in all it sounds pretty grim. But then I talked to a colleague who's seeing different sides to things. Jim Geraghty is the program director at HAPPEN (http://www.happen.ca/), Canada's largest networking group for unemployed, mid-level managers and senior executives. "At least one person a day from our group is getting a job as of late," boasts Geraghty. Many are getting good, full-time positions, complete with benefits. Others are starting their own businesses, getting consulting gigs or latching on to any fixed-term contract they can grab.

When I asked him about age discrimination, he told me that, yes, he had heard about some recruiters specifying "only under 45s need apply." On the other hand, a few are requesting mature candidates. The idea is this: For a little more money, you get someone who has been through several business cycles, has a disciplined understanding of how work gets done and can mentor others.

Try telling that to people like Guri Ragalyi, a 47-year-old software engineer who is having a terrible time finding work in his field. Ragalyi was a thriving part of JDS Uniphase in Ottawa until late 2001. When the tech bubble burst, he was downsized along with 3,000 others. (Today the company has 5,700 employees worldwide, down from 29,000 in 2001).

Ragalyi, who has a B.A. and is a certified information analyst, has been networking and sending out résumés consistently. Still, he's become understandably discouraged. Ragalyi has resorted to taking a part-time job in Toronto as a banquet server. His Employment Insurance ran out last February. Now he relies on welfare, a situation he desperately wants to change. Does he feel his age works against him? "I have never been told that I'm too old," says Ragalyi, "but somehow I feel it. When you see young people everywhere in an office and you are 10 years older than the hiring person, it is hard not to think there might be a barrier."

How then to leverage your age and experience? For one thing, consider trimming your résumé to show the last 12 to 15 years only. And leave out the dates you graduated from school. This reduces your chances of getting screened out on the first cut.

It helps as well to take care of yourself (lame as this may sound). Eat well, get regular exercise and try for the right amount of sleep. Hard to do if you're out of work or scared silly about losing your job, of course. But the harsh fact is employers these days want vital people working on their team.

Think I'm exaggerating? A colleague of mine, who recently turned 50, dyes his hair so prospective clients won't think he's too old. Other people keep their wardrobe current, update their glasses, go for contacts, or do Botox. (Note: I'm not suggesting you go this route - it just shows the pressure to shave off perceived years is only too real.)

Here are some other tips for beating age discrimination:

  • Make sure you keep your skills and knowledge current. Take courses, attend seminars, go to trade shows, read industry publications and learn the latest software. Highlight all of this on your résumé.
  • Look for companies that respect maturity. CARP, Canada's Association for the Fifty-Plus (http://www.50plus.com/), is starting a Best Employers Award for 50-Plus Canadians, along with FGI, a well known Employee Assistance Program firm. They're having a slow start getting applicants, so if you know of any firms to brag about, contact Eric Vengroff, CARP's vice-president, marketing (ericv@50plus.com).
  • Get involved with professional associations or volunteering. By making concrete contributions and expanding your network, you have a better chance of being judged on your abilities.
  • Try not to act like a victim at interview time. Instead, focus on the positives of maturity. Offer to put in odd hours that younger workers with family obligations can't. Play up your loyalty, adaptability, established work ethic, leadership, experience, hunger to do well etc. And expect to be a little flexible on compensation.

Unfortunately, we're pretty much on our own in this battle. Government help for experienced workers is lacking. I called around for hours to find relevant resources. I managed to learn about a two-day workshop sponsored by Human Resources Canada called "Finding Work When You're Over 45." And a Government of Canada Web site (http://www.jobsetc.ca/ and click on "what if I'm an older worker?) had little info.

On the upside, Ragalyi was informed just this week that he qualifies for a government-sponsored wage subsidy - if he can find full-time employment.

Beyond this, how can we fight age discrimination? Try asking the people who hire at your firm to consider more mature workers. Or write our government to start putting targeted programs together (http://canada.gc.ca/directories/direct_e.html for federal MPs, http://olaap.ontla.on.ca/mpp/parlrdg.jsp?glbwc=current for provincial MPs). Also, think about joining CARP or a related organization. Then help them advocate to employers and the government. Suing for age discrimination is a last resort, but proving it is notoriously iffy.

In the end, this issue will affect every one of us at some point in our lives, so we might as well address it head on. Let's face it: You're older now than when you started reading this article. Maybe a little wiser too.

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is a speaker, author and career coach. Write him at mark@careeractivist.com. Visit http://www.careeractivist.com/ for more articles.

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