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Out of Work and Over 40


Tara Weiss
Forbes.com

In his time as a recruiter, Steven Greenberg saw his share of discrimination against workers of a certain, ahem, maturity. One case, though, really got his 46-year-old blood boiling. He was working with a public company that made a challenging request: Find a CPA familiar with overseas manufacturing experience and an obscure accounting system. He found an ideal candidate whom the company wanted to bring in immediately.

That is until they took a look at the applicant’s résumé. While it would have been illegal to ask his age, the company realized from the candidate's work history that he was in his early 50s. Greenberg received an e-mail back from the company’s HR contact, who wrote, “I don’t want to see him. This person is too senior.”

Translation: He's too old, will want too much money and is probably just biding his time until retirement. "That was the last straw for me," says Greenberg.

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So he took matters into his own hands and started www.jobs4point0.com. It's a job bank that caters to job seekers age 40 and older. Coca-Cola, UBS, Starbucks, Marriott and the other companies that list positions on the site say they are very interested in hiring older employees, particularly because they have more experience.

It's tough to measure the site's success since it's only about 2 months old, but Greenberg has tapped a sensitive issue. Many companies prefer hiring younger employees. The reason? They view older workers as having less energy, along with high health and life insurance costs, higher salary expectations and an unwillingness to learn new technology, according to a study released last week by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

That's just plain wrong, says Greenberg. "All the studies I've read show that older workers require one-third less job training and stay in their jobs longer because they're not interested in ladder climbing," he says. "The idea that when you're 42 or 52 you're looking into retirement is completely outdated. People are no longer running to the golf courses at 50. You can't spend 25 years on a golf course."

That's partly because Americans can no longer depend solely on Social Security for retirement and have to keep working for financial reasons. But many baby boomers also want to work. Today's 70-year-olds are more comparable in health and mental function to 65-year-olds from 30 years ago, according to the Center for Retirement study. Says Greenberg, "Older employees are saying, 'Evaluate me on my experience, not on how many birthdays I've had.' "

That's something Tom Dubin, senior vice president at Alexion Pharmaceuticals, a Connecticut-based biotech firm, wants to do. There are certain industries that welcome years of experience.

"Certainly that's biotech," he says. Older employees have experience with Food and Drug Administration challenges and all the bureaucracy that comes with it. "Having navigated them in the past, it can only benefit the new employer," says Dubin. As for the allegation that older employees are just there to collect a paycheck, Dubin laughs and says there are people like that in every generation.

Tell that to Linda, a 41-year-old communications manager in Connecticut. (At her request, her actual name has been withheld.) She's got plenty of experience in both political and nonprofit communications--she even worked as a communications manager for a U.S. senator. She's been looking for a position at the vice president level on and off for the past year by networking and using online job sites like Monster.com and Careerbuilder.com.

She's repeatedly received the same response: You're hard to place. "I'm placed in a no-man's land," she says. "I think there is an element of discrimination here. Do companies want to invest in someone who is 41 years old?”

Maybe not, but it's exactly who they should invest in. There are 76 million Americans retiring in the next 10 years and 46 million coming into the workforce, according to the American Society for Training and Development. That means there are less young people to fill jobs than needed, not to mention how much training they will need. Add to that the confusion about whether workers will choose to retire around ages 62 or 63--the average age women and men retire at, respectively--and the topic of mature workers becomes extremely stressful.

"The whole separation process, which used to be very well organized because of mandatory retirement and pension requirement, isn't," says Steven Sass, associate director for research at Boston College's Center for Retirement. It could cause a brain drain or a lot of deadwood hanging on. You don't know." To avoid that stress, Sass suggests that older workers talk to their bosses and human resources departments about their desires. Chances are, they're just as interested in planning for the future.

In a recent study, Sass and his team asked employers what factors affect productivity in order to examine the impression that older workers are less productive. The two things that stood out were knowledge of procedures--experience--and the ability to interact with customers. "Older workers scored very high on both," says Sass. He recommends leveraging those attributes when applying for jobs.

He adds, "Older people have been around the block." And in this case, that's a good thing.

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