June 25, 2020
Virus Complicates Boomers’ Job Searches
As laid-off baby boomers venture into the job market in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they may sense it will be tough to find a position because, well, they’re too old.
New research indicates this suspicion is spot-on.
Discrimination is notoriously difficult to corroborate in academic studies. But researchers in Belgium, using a well-designed experiment conducted prior to the pandemic, found that company hiring managers working in 30 developed countries, including the United States, were much less likely to ask older job applicants to even come in for an interview.
The reason? They were perceived as having “lower technological skill, flexibility, and trainability levels,” the study concluded.
But there’s a big disconnect between this evidence of discrimination and a different report, based on a 2019 telephone survey, that employers view workers over age 55 as being at least – and sometimes more – productive than their younger colleagues. This survey also found that older workers are perceived more positively if the hiring manager is older. The findings provide some hope that, as the population ages, baby boomers who want to continue their careers may be able to do so.
However, even the authors of this study acknowledge two issues facing boomers. First, even when employers say they have positive perceptions of older workers, this posture “does not necessarily correspond with employer behavior.”
Second, given older workers’ underlying health conditions, COVID-19 is a wild card that could “adversely affect” their job prospects.
In any case, older job hunters will inevitably encounter some recruiters who will hold age against them. To overcome preconceived notions about older workers, the study of discriminatory recruiters provided some practical tips, based on the findings.
But first, here’s how the experiment worked. The researchers asked each recruiter to assess whether five applicants between ages 32 and 63 were a good fit for one specific job. A total of eight different vacant positions were tested: dental technician, door-to-door salesman, packer, machine tool operator, lab tech, insurance agent, physiotherapist, and database administrator.
The recruiters invited applicants to interview after reading fictitious vignettes describing their skills, physical ability, ease with customers, and technical know-how. The researchers varied the ages of the candidates with similar resumés to determine whether age affected whether they got an interview.
The study concluded that the recruiters routinely second-guessed the older workers’ qualifications and thought their wage expectations were too high, which also hurt their chances of being called in for an interview.
It’s difficult to combat something as amorphous as age discrimination. But the researchers suggest a few things older job applicants can try:
- Make clear in an application that you are flexible and eager to learn new things, mitigating the impact of two of the strongest negative stereotypes.
- Provide ample detail about your technical skills to counter perceptions of being behind the times.
- Remember that the nature of the employer matters. Job recruiters at firms with a larger percentage of older workers were more likely to be interested in older applicants. This finding – backed up by both of the employer surveys discussed above – was particularly true for professionals or positions requiring more skill.
People in their 50s and 60s are good workers. The tricky part often is getting a foot in the door.
Read more blog posts in our ongoing coverage of COVID-19.
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