Stunning, staggering, mind-numbing, call it what you will, the COVID-19 pandemic’s crushing impact on the job market is inescapable.
Over 30 million Americans have now filed for unemployment benefits, according to the Labor Department. Not surprisingly, the unemployment rate for workers age 55 and older is climbing, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute.
“Preretirees (approximately 50-65) are getting the wind kicked out of them right now,” said Ken Dychtwald, founder and chief executive of Age Wave, a consulting and research company, and author of “What Retirees Want: A Holistic View of Life’s Third Age,” in his presentation on the American Society of Aging broadcast, “Aging in the Time of COVID-19: Reflections on Life, Health, Family, Community and Purpose.”
The stressful smackdown is not just job losses, though, “it is also compounded by fear of job losses, having to fire and furlough people, kids at home, elder parents in distress, and market volatility,” he told me in a follow-up conversation.
Read: Why millions of older workers will pay a big price — forever — because of the coronavirus
“Remember, too, that folks in this stage of life are often managers and bosses,” Dychtwald said.
That takes its toll. But the job losses so far–and those to come–are particularly wrenching for this age cohort. “We are assuming that 20% of older workers (over 50) are going to lose their jobs,” said labor economist Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor at the New School for Social Research in New York, in her recent conversation with Mark Miller, editor of RetirementRevised.com.
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They “face very different risks than younger workers who are going to lose their jobs,” she said. “One is that they risk losing their jobs and never getting another job, so the scarring effects of the unemployment here are going to be much worse than for younger workers. Though hard for younger workers, they at least have time to catch up and switch industries, but older workers cannot and this can mean premature retirement.”
Consider this: half of people age 25 to 34 who lost their jobs during the last recession in 2008 were reemployed within six months, according to a report by The Urban Institute. “Age Disparities in Unemployment and Reemployment During the Great Recession and Recovery.” It took more than nine months, on average, for the unemployed ages 51 to 60.
This time the extraordinary hit to the economy is likely to be far deeper and take longer to bounce back, according to the economists I spoke to.
In a recent Market Watch column, I discussed why this might be a good time to think about a career change. And I wholeheartedly believe that.
But let’s be honest, the deeper more complex and perplexing problem is how to land a job if you’ve been laid off, and you’re over 50, period.
Ageism is alive and well in the hiring process. It has been for ages and hit its stride after the last recession. I constantly hear from older workers that hiring managers seem to look at them, during their interview, as if they are looking at a consumer good with an expiration date on their forehead.
There are lots of preconceived assumptions that linger in the subterranean blues here. Negative views persist about the financial cost of employing older workers — in terms of salary expectations and health coverage — whether they’re really up for the job in terms of energy and enthusiasm to be productive, whether they’re nimble with technology and willing to learn new ways of communicating and playing nicely with younger colleagues and possibly younger bosses. That’s hogwash, of course, for most older workers. Although, to be fair, some workers might flunk this test.
There is no skating around the ugliness of it all.
Younger applicants are often explicitly favored for open positions, particularly through illegally worded help-wanted ads that appear every day on online job boards, according to an AARP investigation published in December, that also shows that some large companies might have few concerns over their age-discriminatory practices because the laws that are supposed to protect workers from ageism are decidedly weaker than laws protecting against other forms of bias.
Nonetheless, have heart, confidence, and some chutzpah. It is feasible to meet this challenge.
One bright light for job seekers will be the surge in opportunities to work remotely. For many older workers, pursuing more flexible work options, particularly as they phase into retirement, or seek part-time contract projects working from home is a bona fide boon.
You save on the commute, not only financially but the stress of hustling to meet the train or driving home in the dark, and you quite possibly escape the front-and-center, but somewhat subliminal age contrast between your graying hair and your youthful and perhaps exuberant co-worker chuckling at something they’re peering at on their iPhone. Plus, who cares what your age is if you can deliver the goods?
There are a growing number of job boards to search for remote opportunities, including Flexjobs.com, Sidehusl and Work at Home Vintage Employers (WAHVE), a site for professionals 50+ who work from home for over 300 insurance and accounting firms.
For some smart job-hunting steps to take right now from the comfort of your own home, I reached out to two job search strategists who I follow: Hannah Morgan, also known as Career Sherpa and Susan P. Joyce, an online job search expert, and editor of Job-hunt.org.
Do an internal review. “For older job seekers, now is the best time to answer the following questions and help you decrease the time your search will take,” said Morgan.
How strong is your network? “Referred applicants are five times more likely than average to be hired, and 15 times more likely to be hired than applicants from a job board. If you’re in regular contact with your network, then it should be easier to hear about potential upcoming opportunities. If you’ve let your network grow dormant, begin reaching out to all the people you used to work with. Consider contacting past colleagues, vendors, suppliers including people who have retired. A strong network will help provide you with information, advice and referrals that you can use to improve how you position yourself for new opportunities.”
How much do you love the work you were doing? “If you didn’t love your job, then now is a good time to reassess what you’ll do next,” she said. “If you show a lack of genuine enthusiasm for your work, that is evident to everyone you talk with while interviewing and networking. Keep in mind, employers want to hire people who are motivated to do the work.”
How current are your skills? “You are likely to be looked over if you don’t have skills that younger candidates possess,” Morgan said. “If you can brush up on data analytics or a piece of software, use your time while unemployed to take online classes.”
Build a robust LinkedIn profile. “While unemployed, job seekers have nothing to lose by spending time updating and polishing their LinkedIn profile,” said Joyce. “LinkedIn gives members the opportunity to demonstrate that they are knowledgeable and experienced and could add value to an organization,” she said. “A solid LinkedIn profile and relevant/professional LinkedIn activities are the best “proof” of being up-to-date.”
When updating a LinkedIn profile, “the best strategy is to focus on a target job at a specific target employer,” Joyce said. “These are two essential pieces of information because they determine the best keywords to use in the LinkedIn profile. The most important keywords are job titles (used by the target employers for that job), the skills and education usually required for that job. When different employers use different job titles for the same job, become a “slash person” for example, Web Content Administrator/Web Content Manager/Web Content Writer.
The ‘Work Experience’ section of the profile “needs to focus on accomplishments, not just job titles and dates, and quantified when possible,” Joyce said. “Being endorsed for the LinkedIn skills appropriate and relevant for the target job also has a big impact on visibility. When you’re ready, under your settings, make sure that it’s open for ‘public’ viewing, and join the ‘Open to Job Opportunities’ feature.”
And one from me, through its Employers Pledge Program (EPP), AARP works with companies to help them understand the value of older, experienced workers. More than 1,000 employers have signed a pledge publicly affirming that they are committed to fighting age discrimination. AARP’s job board features work postings from companies that have taken pledge.
So while it can seem bleak for job seekers over 50, there are glimmers of hope.