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The 3 Strikes Against Older Job Hunters

Smart advice for finding work after 50 →

By Richard Eisenberg

There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence about how hard it can be for unemployed people over 50 to get hired after they’ve lost their jobs. Now, a team of academic researchers have culled all the studies they could find to see what the data shows. The result isn’t pretty, but one of these experts has some smart job-hunting tactics, which you'll see below.

Their article in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin Age and Reemployment Success After Job Loss: An Integrative Model and Meta-Analysis — shows that these older job seekers have three strikes against them: They get fewer offers than younger applicants, they’re less likely to find work than them and when they do get hired, the process takes them longer.

Job-Finding Odds Worsen As You Age

“As you get older, the negative outcomes tend to increase,” said Georgia Institute of Technology psychology professor Ruth Kanfer, one of the article’s co-writers. “The odds of being re-employed decrease by 2.6 percent for every year increase in age.”

Kanfer, along with University of Minnesota’s Connie R. Wanberg, University of Texas at Arlington’s Darla J. Hamann and Arizona State University’s Zhen Zhang looked at hundreds of psychological and economic studies for data on the relationship between age, job search and reemployment outcomes. Then, they examined a sample from the government’s national survey of displaced workers.

“Older workers always say it takes them longer to find a job than younger workers and that the likelihood of finding a job is lower. We find support for the notion that from age 50 on, it does take substantially longer than for people under 50,” said Kanfer. “One qualification is that we don’t know whether that’s because they gave up on the search.”

A Big Motivational Problem

The psychology professor also noted that psychology is at play for unemployed 50+ job seekers.

“One problem you face when you lose your job is the difficulty of coping with the job loss, especially if it’s unexpected and not your decision,” said Kanfer. “Searching for a job is probably the most difficult motivational problem there is — more than weight loss. For many people, there’s a shame involved in losing a job and not having work.”

Her recommendation: “Instead of secluding yourself, spend time expanding your network to learn about new developments and opportunities.”

Kanfer said the research shows that older unemployed men and women need to network even harder than younger ones.

“Over time, networks tend to be more constrained,” she said. “As you get older, you’re less likely to know people who are actively searching for jobs in the areas that you are. You’re not connected to the job-search network the way a 25-year-old or 35-year-old might be. That means you may not know of as many job opportunities as younger people.”

Losing Steam Looking for Work

Kanfer said the studies also reveal a link between age and job-searching intensity. Older, unemployed applicants sometimes wind up choosing to retire because it’s been so long since they last looked for work and they lack necessary job-hunting skills for today’s world.

Some are more likely to lose steam on the job hunt out of frustration, too, sometimes blaming perceived age discrimination by employers.

But in a recent Next Avenue piece, life coach Jason Dukes argued that some of this age-discrimination is self-imposed by the older job seekers themselves. Dukes believes that some job hunters in their 50s and 60s are holding themselves back because of “their own limiting belief story about their prospects due to their age.”

I suspect there’s some of that. But the research that Kanfer & Co. uncovered offers compelling evidence that looking for work when you’re out of work in your 50s or 60s is rough.

That seems to be especially true for people looking for full-time positions. “A few studies suggest that age is more related to finding full-time jobs than part-time jobs,” Kanfer told me.

The Obstacles Older Job Seekers Face

What accounts for the added difficulties for older unemployed job seekers? The article’s authors say the obstacles to re-employment success are partly due to age-related differences in knowledge, skills and abilities — as well as the kind of jobs people want.


“Older people tend to have longer job tenure, which makes them more valuable to employers when they are with them,” said Kanfer. “But they may not have the skills that are in demand in the marketplace.”

In addition, said Kanfer, “older workers tend to engage in less training and when they do, they tend to take longer to train.”

The lesson here: If you have a job and your employer offers an opportunity to learn new skills, grab it. Then, be sure to note it in your resumé and LinkedIn profile, so prospective employers will know about it if you wind up looking for work sometime.

And as for “abilities,” Kanfer said the data refers to physical, not cognitive ones. If you’re no longer physically able to do your job, she noted, you may then need to look for work in a different, lower-paying field.

Her advice: “Revisit your vocational strengths” — the attribute kind, not the heavy-lifting kind — “and see what jobs you might be best suited for.”

Earning Less, But Sometimes For a Good Reason

When it comes to pay, the authors’ research echoes a recent AARP study of unemployed older job seekers: Prepare to earn less than you did in your last job.

“We found some evidence that wages for new jobs are lower than they are for younger job seekers,” Kanfer said. “It may be due to the fact that individuals over 50 are looking for jobs for different reasons than just maximum wages. They may have a desire for intrinsic rewards over compensation.”

That sounds right to me. My Next Avenue colleague Kerry Hannon and I have written about the 50+ job hunters’ yen for flexible hours, short commutes and meaningful work. Some job seekers are willing, albeit not thrilled, to sacrifice pay for quality of life. But they’re still willing to work hard. “We found no evidence that the motivation to work is lower as a function of age,” said Kanfer. “It’s just that what you want from a job changes.”

Clarify Your Re-Employment Goals

Her advice: “Clarify your re-employment goals to help sustain your motivation for your job search. Which features of a job are most important to you? Listing your priorities helps you develop a more focused search. And that will tell you if you need to upgrade your skills.”

And if you think your job-hunting skills are rusty, Kanfer advised, learn how to improve them. “Often you can join job clubs that have information about the electronic job-application process,” she said. “And talk to other older people who recently found work about what they did right and wrong.”

If it’s any consolation, the outlook is better for older unemployed job seekers in the United States than in many other places. “We found that older job seekers were more likely to be reemployed in North America than in Europe, East Asia and Australia,” said Kanfer.

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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