Art of people at a job interview

Field Work

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.

Squared Away writer Kim Blanton invites you to follow us on Twitter @SquaredAwayBC. To stay current on our blog, please join our free email list. You’ll receive just one email each week – with links to the two new posts for that week – when you sign up here. This blog is supported by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

3 Responses to Virus Complicates Boomers’ Job Searches

  1. Charlie says:

    Yes! And for those of you still employed at 55+, take every advantage of any company provided computer training classes. You don’t need to be an expert but you should have a basic command of Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. It’s important to keep skills up to date, and so many co-workers don’t even attend them, thinking “I’ll never use it.” Alternatively, you also “lose it, if you don’t use it” with respect to computer software. Take brush-ups too!

  2. Geoffrey Hewitt says:

    Actually one needs to properly analyze both experience in an upward trend in work experience and intellect in an interview to accurately pick the right candidate. The real question is how quickly a person comes up to speed to contribute to an organization in an impactful way; there are qualified people at all ages. The key is choosing the right one. My cousin worked at MIT until age 71 with a PHD in biology from Harvard and worked with Watson/Crick on DNA molecule.

  3. James Kelly says:

    I am a semi-retired 81 year old banker.
    -Fully bilingual English/Spanish
    – 50 years banking experience in Canada, US and Latin America including 15 years in the Mortgage Industry.

    I have sent dozens of CV’s to large and small companies.

    Not a sausage! Too old!

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