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Over 55 and Overqualified: Advice for Older Job Hunters

How to deflect that codeword for 'old' and get hired


I recently received this email from a woman named Patricia, age 64 (she asked that I not use her last name):

“Who Am I? I ask myself that question every day. I’ve been labeled “long-term unemployed,” “99er” [a 99er is someone whose federal unemployment benefits ran out — after 99 weeks], “couch potato”, etc. I’ve been called every name one can think of… I’ve reached and reached, have been interviewed, talked about, called all kinds of names and been told over and over and over again how ‘overqualified’ I am that it makes me cry and cry often.”

Over 55 and ‘Overqualified’

The basic outline of Patricia’s story is sadly familiar and will resonate with other unemployed people over 55 who’ve been told they, too, were overqualified when they applied for jobs. I’m relating it here so I can offer advice to her and anyone else among the long-term, “overqualified” unemployed.

Patricia had been a paralegal for 20 years in the New York City area and worked as an insurance claims rep on Long Island. Her last full-time job was a legal secretary in New York. She lost that job in 2008 during the recession. To help her find work, New York State sent her to school to earn two certificates: one as certified biller/coder and the other in medical business administration.

“How many times do you need to be told they don’t want you anymore,” she told me. “It’s an awful way to live.”

— Patricia, long-term unemployed and 64

In 2010, she moved to Florida to lower her living costs and has been unsuccessful finding work, forcing her to deplete her retirement savings and file for Social Security just to pay the bills. The New York State certificates didn’t pay off because certificates tend to be very state specific. Time and again, prospective employers said Patricia was too qualified for their open positions.

“How many times do you need to be told they don’t want you anymore,” she told me. “It’s an awful way to live.”

Losing a job is always a blow, but for those 55 and over it’s doubly hard.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates that the incidence of long-term unemployment — defined as being out of work 27 weeks or more — rises with age. In 2014, just 22 percent of the unemployed under 25 were jobless 27 weeks or longer, but 45 percent of the 55-and-older unemployed were.

A Code Word for ‘Too Old?’

The past year, I’ve traveled around the country giving talks about my book Unretirement.  I met many unemployed people like Patricia, wondering if they truly were overqualified or if that was just employer code for “too old.”

Says Tim Driver, founder and CEO of Retirementjobs.com, which matches older job seekers with employers: “There’s a nastiness when someone is called ‘overqualified.’ Sometimes, it’s an excuse for age bias.”

To be sure, the economic expansion, now in its 72nd month, is bringing down the jobless numbers. The ranks of long-term unemployed reached a record high of 6.7 million (45 percent of the unemployed) in the second quarter of 2010 but that number has shrunk to 2.1 million (25.8 percent of the unemployed), a still dismayingly high figure in historic terms. And that percentage doesn’t include laid-off boomers who gave up looking for work.

Still, there are no easy answers or simple remedies for people like Patricia. As former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers put it: “The best social policy is a high-pressure economy in which firms are chasing workers rather than workers chasing jobs.”

Job Hunting Advice for the ‘Overqualified’

In the meantime, what can the so-called “overqualified” unemployed do to land a job?

If a hiring manager says you’re overqualified, after smothering the urge to strangle him or her, recognize that what you may be hearing is worry that you’ll be bored, dissatisfied and jump to a better job as soon as one comes along.

So, reassure the potential employer by emphasizing that at this stage of your life you’re striving for a better work-life balance, not necessarily the next rung on a career ladder.

Also, build your resumé around the skills you have that fit the particular job. And during your interview, show enthusiasm for the position.

“You’re cherry picking your skills at this stage of your life. It’s a natural thing,” says Rick Matson, a semi-retired career/job search consultant, much of his business with the medical device behemoth Medtronic. “Just make sure you don’t leave the impression that you don’t want to work hard.”

In its recent report The Long Road Back: Struggling to Find Work after Unemployment, AARP found that those who got rehired often contacted potential employers directly, took the initiative to follow up and networked feverishly.

These days, boomers don’t have to rely solely on their own contacts to find job leads. Organizations are springing up all over the country offering networking opportunities, such as Encore Tampa Bay in Tampa, Fla. Many churches and temples are also active in organizing job networks for their community.

A note of caution: Not all networking groups are alike. Seek out a group that’s practical in orientation and optimistic in spirit, says Mary White, who counsels laid-off workers in St. Paul, Minn. “Some network groups just get together and whine. Others, you’ll report what you did this week to find a job and what you’re going to do next week,” White notes. “You have to be accountable.”

A stint volunteering might turn into a job offer. Volunteering can also be an engaging activity during the tough times of looking for work. “Anything that gets you out of the house and away from the computer is good,” says White. “If it stimulates your heart and your mind, do it.”

What about turning temping into something close to a full-time job? This choice isn’t for everyone, but permanent tempers often enjoy project-based tasks, meeting new people and dealing with different employers. There are all kinds of temp agencies, ranging from clerical technical jobs to white-collar work. “Temping your way through retirement is a valid idea,” says Driver.

Finally, take a hard look at your skill set and get creative thinking about fields that could use those talents. For example, since Patricia has a background as a paralegal, she’s comfortable dealing with regulations and paperwork. Matson muses that she could consider becoming a medical Sherpa or patient advocate, the growing profession of helping people negotiate the health insurance and hospital bureaucracies.

A Job Is More Than a Job

Keep in mind that work is more than the welcome rewards of a decent paycheck combined with tough hours on the job. Workplaces are also communities.

The late Studs Terkel, in his classic oral history of working life (Working) wonderfully captured this. He described the hardships, humiliations, disappointments and setbacks many people suffer in their daily labors but also stressed the dignity and pride in work, the reach for worth and purpose.

“It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor,” he wrote. That search informs today’s Unretirement movement to rethink and reimagine the possibilities in the second half of life.

Simply put, a job connects the disconnected.

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