11 tips for finding a job when you’re over 50, from an ‘ageism’ expert

Hey boomers, it’s not your imagination. Finding a job in today’s COVID economy is harder than ever, especially for “older Americans,” i.e. workers 55 and older.

Let’s start with the grim statistics (just to get them over with).

According to the “Older Workers Report” released Aug. 5 by the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis Retirement Equity Lab (ReLab), nearly 3 million workers ages 55 to 70 — about 7% of workers in that age group — have left the labor force since mid-March, about 50% more than the 1.9 million older workers who left the labor force after the Great Recession began in late 2007. And unless the labor situation changes posthaste, the report expects an additional million “older workers” to be out of a job before the end of the year.

The sobering prognosis? More than half of unemployed older workers are at risk of “involuntary retirement” due to the pandemic because they can’t find a new job, according to the report, and that spells bad news for all of American society moving forward.

“A total of 4 million people potentially pushed into retirement before they are ready will increase old-age poverty and exacerbate the recession,” the report said, concluding that “Congress should increase and extend unemployment benefits for older workers, discourage withdrawals from 401(k)s and IRAs, lower Medicare eligibility to 50 and create a Federal Older Workers Bureau.”

Nice suggestions, but since Congress has been preoccupied lately with TikTok and deadlocks, maybe it’s best for unemployed older workers to move to Plan B: Improve your chances of getting rehired.

Author, speaker and personal finance expert Kerry Hannon can’t do much about congressional action, but she has plenty to say about how the older crowd can improve their chances in the job market.

The author of “Great Jobs for Everyone 50+,” “Never Too Old To Get Rich,” and the soon-to-be-released “Great Pajama Jobs,” believes older workers (“I like to say experienced”) have taken a bigger hit in COVID-19 furloughs and layoffs in part because they usually have higher pay and beefier benefits than their younger counterparts, making them attractive targets for strapped companies looking to trim their costs.

The good news? When the economy starts recovering, older workers might have an advantage with employers because they will require little or no training and can hit the ground running, especially since employers will likely be working with fewer staff, Hannon said.

Unfortunately, it’s also likely those experienced workers will be hired at a lower wage than their previous jobs, Hannon said, noting research by Richard Johnson at the Urban Institute, who wrote in his May 14 blog Urban Wire: “After the Great Recession, workers ages 62 and older were about half as likely to become re-employed as their counterparts ages 25 to 34. And when unemployed older workers found a new job, they earned barely half as much as they did on their previous job.”

So what’s an older worker to do?

Plenty, Hannon said. Working remotely could be a boon for employees who want the focus on their work product rather than their looks, and in job interviews older workers can play up their demonstrated work ethic, time management skills and maturity.

No question the challenges are greater for older workers who have lost a job. Employers might worry about their increased vulnerability to COVID-19 if they return to the office, their potential for higher health care costs, their ability to work with younger colleagues and whether their technology skills are up to date. But Hannon thinks those issues can be overcome with the right preparation. Here are her 11 tips for success:

Consider your skillset

A layoff is a good time to consider whether you want to try something new, Hannon said. Look at your skills, make a list of your interests and strengths — ask friends and family for suggestions if you aren’t sure — then look at what jobs might fit the bill.

“So often in this age group, people flat-line intellectually; they’re not learning something new and get stuck in their ways,” she said. “They want to replicate the old job and do what they were doing before, at the same basic salary, and that’s a problem because they really need to think about how to take their past experience and transfer it to something new.”

Self-evaluate and grow

Do not devolve into a panicked state, sending out the same stale resume to dozens of companies and despairing when no one responds. This is the time to beef up your skills, take a few classes and start volunteering with an organization you really care about, so when prospective employers ask what you’ve been doing, you can show them you’ve been busy honing your skills and saving the world.

Get LinkedIn

Employers are going to do a Google search on prospective hires, and their first and most important stop will likely be your LinkedIn profile.

“If you don’t have a (profile), you’ll look ridiculous,” Hannon said. “You need to have a really sharp LinkedIn profile because it really shows who you are.”

LinkedIn lets you personalize your background and skills while mentioning your volunteer experiences and any new skills you’ve added since you left your last job. Use a current photo and include videos, articles or presentations — anything that can help employers learn about you and your personality.

Customize your resume

“Your resume is not your obituary; it’s an advertisement,” Hannon said. “Put your skills at the top and stick to the last 10 years.”

Include a relatively recent CAR story. That stands for a situation that lays out “your challenge, your action and the result” you achieved, ideally a challenge that addresses a problem your prospective employer might face.

“You need to customize your resume for whatever jobs you apply for and be very shrewd,” she said. “You need to pick a handful of employers where you really want to work, do all the research you can on the company and be very specific about using the words they use in the job description on your resume.”

Don’t focus on achievements from 20 years ago. If you must include any truly stellar moments from years gone by, do it in a brief paragraph at the end.

Start sleuthing

Once you’ve identified the companies where you’d like to work, go on LinkedIn and other sites to find out everything you can about the job and the people who work there.

Specifically, you are trying to find someone you know or someone who can make an introduction, because the reality is “employers hire who they know,” Hannon said. “I like to say, ‘Networking’ is just one letter away from ‘not working.’ “

Make a connection

Don’t fret about appearing needy; now is the time to tell everybody you know that you’re looking for work, because you never know who can help.

One of Hannon’s clients made dinner for his son and his son’s friend, who asked him what he was doing these days. “I’m looking for a job,” the dad said, and the friend replied, “You should talk to my mom.”

The mom didn’t get him a job, but she did introduce him to his future boss. “You just never know when somebody can help you,” Hannon said.

Update but don’t overdo

“There’s no question that ageism is alive and well,” Hannon said, “and people do judge a book by its cover,” so it makes sense to update your look with more stylish glasses and clothes but don’t go overboard.

If you make more drastic changes, like growing a beard, getting Botox or coloring your hair, be sure your LinkedIn photo matches the new you and never make big changes just before an interview; too many things can go wrong.

Get physical

The most important change you can make to your look is via exercise, Hannon said, even if it’s just walking the dog for 20 minutes every day. When you’re physically fit, it doesn’t just improve your frame of mind, it also gives you energy and a positivity that shines through in an interview.

“It’s subtle, but when you exercise, it does things to your attitude; it gives you a can-do spirit, where you want to be around that person. It’s the best thing you can do to fight ageism. All that energy and positivity comes through even on a Zoom interview, because you just spark.”

Know thy interviewer

Once you get an interview, find out everything you can about your interviewer. Here’s where LinkedIn can help you again, because it lists personal interests as well as work backgrounds. These personal tidbits are particularly important today, when we can’t meet in someone’s office.

Back then you could search around the room for clues — a photo of children or a beautiful dog. Mention you love dogs, too, and, boom, you’ve made a connection.

These “ice breakers” need to be authentic, Hannon said, “but anything you can do to enrich information about yourself can help future employers see whether you would fit into the workplace culture.”

Be curious

Ask a lot of questions during an interview, Hannon said, and start with the phrase, “Something I’m really curious about …” because curiosity is appealing.

“It’s the key to an active mind, and it goes a long way to fighting ageism,” she said. “It shows you’re looking forward and not stuck in the past.”

Consider salary options

It might be tough to get back to your old salary, but with a solid work history and skills, you can negotiate other options, such as flextime, extra vacation or the ability to work from home. Be open to new opportunities, Hannon said.

“We get frozen in place and change is really scary, but this is a great time to redefine how we think about work. We need to make work a part of our lives, not our entire lives.”

Jeanette Marantos writes for the Los Angeles Times.