How to navigate the nightmare of job-hunting when you're over 50

Age discrimination is alive and well.

  • By Paul Brandus,
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"I applied for 30 jobs and never heard a word from anyone."

"I don't even get a call back."

These are common complaints from older workers who are looking to make a late-career switch. You'd think that with the unemployment rate at 3.9% — and heading lower, many analysts say — and the economy bolting ahead at a 4.1% clip that this would be a job seeker's market.

For younger Americans, it is. But if you're a certain age — say 50 or over — it's still challenging. The fact is, even with a super tight labor market, a lot of employers just don't want older workers.

What gives?

Beating age discrimination

"Age discrimination is definitely alive and well," says Renee Ward of Seniors4Hire, a career counseling firm based in Huntington Beach, Calif. "Hiring managers aren't interested in the 50+ crowd."

If you're new to this age group, this may come as a surprise. After all, aren't companies interested in all the experience you bring to the table? Sorry to disappoint you, but they're not. Just look at job descriptions on websites.

"They might say 'two-to-three years experience necessary,' or 'recent college graduates', or words to that effect," Ward says. "They never say they're looking for 20 years' experience." This is one of the first ways companies weed out older workers from the get-go.

This often comes as a shock to those older workers, who think their experience is valuable. "I'll have a client who'll say 'I've been doing this for 30 years!' But to employers, somebody with five years experience is equally competent," Ward says. "So the question is, what makes your 30 years more valuable?" Sometimes older workers carry a chip on their shoulder about this, but that's their problem — not a potential employer's.

Of course, there's another reason for turning away all that experience: Older workers have higher salary expectations, and some employers simply don't want to pay you what you think you're worth.

Demonstrate added value

So to come back to Ward's question--what makes all your experience more valuable? That's what you've got to show. You might get indignant about this--you've spent decades in the trenches, after all, and might not feel you have to.

You do.

But how? Ward, with years of advising clients and dealing with recruiters, offers some advice, which begins with acknowledging the employer's specific needs, and then pivoting to your value added.

"I would say, 'I understand that you're looking for someone with five years experience, and I do have the five years. And I'm confident and capable with the skill set that you're looking for. But in addition to that, here are some other ways I can prove to be valuable to you.' And then list them confidently," Ward says. There are no guarantees of course, but this strategy works quite often.

In a face-to-face meeting, verbally outlining that added value can be a powerful moment for you. But since the first point of contact with a potential employer is often through a job site, you'll probably have to convey that online. Do so in the cover letter, and watch out for a question in the online applications that asks "Why should we hire you?" Take full advantage of this. "For example," Ward says, "if they are applying for a customer service position and the job description says, "one year of experience required," they could write something like 'Yes, I meet this requirement and I have proven ability to calm irate customers and turn them into advocates for the benefit of the company.'"

Pick up the phone

There are other ways of standing out. If there's an opening at a company you're interested in, you can find the name of the hiring manager (you'll probably have to call the company) and send them a direct letter or email with a cover letter and resume singing your praises — and then request an interview. Sometimes this pro-active approach impresses employers, sometimes it doesn't.

Informational interviews can also help you stand out. It can be a long shot, but sometimes inviting someone for coffee or lunch and seeking their advice on a company, and its culture can produce not just valuable insights, but win you an internal ally that can tip you off about current or future openings.

And here's a final way to gain an added edge: Send a quick handwritten thank you note (not email) to that person in a few days. No one does this anymore, certainly not the younger people you may be competing with. It's a classy gesture that will always be remembered positively. I write them all the time and they're really effective. Keep it short and to the point, something like: "Thanks for taking the time to chat on Tuesday. I really appreciated your advice, and XYC sounds like a terrific place. Let's stay in touch." If you didn't slip the person your card when you met stick it in the note or write it down.

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