Why That Post-50 Job Is Getting Harder to Find

Read most advice for over-50 job seekers and you might conclude that the successful job search for these individuals is simply a matter of sprucing up, looking energetic, presenting yourself humbly and, well, waiting for the offers to roll in.

After all, people with your advanced skills, knowledge, judgment, experience and executive presence must be several times more valuable to any right-thinking company than they were, as mere corporate striplings, 25 years ago. And we’ve all heard stories of post-50 executives, who, after being dumped from cushy corporate cocoons, have found rewarding and fulfilling new careers through insight, tenacity or serendipity. (I got a kick out of the article about the guy who won his new job by displaying a photo of himself as a robust mountain climber. What a stud.)

But such stories are exceptions to the rule. The truth is that your chances of finding a great new job drop sharply with each passing 50-plus year, and for some very good — and very short-sighted and heartless — reasons. It has to do with the three great motivators of corporate cultures — money, fear and prejudice.

As a former vice president for a $6.5 billion company, I found money to be a frequently insurmountable hurdle to hiring extremely competent and superbly experienced individuals. Companies want the best possible team, and the practice of “top grading” — or always hiring someone more skilled than the person being replaced — is all the HR rage at certain management levels. Even so, no matter what job is vacant, budgets and fiscal pressure never allow firms to pay more to replace a departed associate, and older applicants are presumed to be looking for higher pay. If they’re not, the assumption is that older applicants must be flawed in some possibly hidden but, no doubt, debilitating way. The only exception is the senior-most ranks of management, where jobs are few, salaries and benefits are egregiously excessive and buddies are selected first.

The second factor working against applicants older than 50 is fear. Not your fear that you won’t find a job, but the quite natural fear younger executives have that older men and women may be hard to manage. The thinking, which makes no sense to those of us old enough to have a little perspective, is that people over 50 often know what they are doing. Their skills are fully developed. Their judgment is keen. They aren’t prone to suffer rah-rah style corporate environments. They are less likely to simply follow orders, no questions asked.

It’s the exceedingly rare 30- to 40ish manager who wants someone so accomplished on their team. It’s much more practical to hire an eager, energetic youngster who will follow orders and willingly agree that two plus two really does equal a corporate five.

Most ambitious young managers will find plausible reasons to reject the older candidate. She or he is “overqualified,” or maybe they learned “bad habits” from past jobs. The true motivation, though, is abject fear — that the experienced applicant will look better than the boss, that the knowledgeable job candidate will too often ask that key question, “Why?” Conclusion? Hire the kid.

Reason No. 3 for the dearth of job opportunities for the 50-plus set is prejudice. Age discrimination is the norm in corporate America. Young people, who usually do the first-level screening, think of their parents and conclude that older applicants must be just like them — dated, hopelessly lost in modern culture, short of energy and not fully in possession of modern mental capabilities. Young managerial and HR hotshots practice systematic age discrimination in the name of keeping the work force fresh, when, in reality, the motivation is plainly and simply prejudice.

So, what does this mean for your job search? By all means, do the networking that outplacement specialists and career counselors prescribe. Ceaselessly search for jobs, both online and off. Conduct those “informational interviews” that you’re advised to pursue. Ponder educational opportunities. Make the resume sing like Pavarotti. Whenever possible, smile. Wear the clean shirt, creased slacks, polished loafers.

Will these steps overcome the triple barriers of tight budgets, managerial fear and age prejudice? They can and sometimes do.

But stay absolutely realistic. Those positive professional traits that you value most about yourself may be exactly the same factors that make you toast at many companies. Prepare emotionally for a bewildering and sometimes disheartening lack of interest. But even when it’s difficult to do so, remember, that at 50 and beyond you really are at the height of your professional and creative powers. Never, ever let anyone, especially a young someone, tell you otherwise.

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