Why Older Workers are Struggling to Find Work

Researchers at Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College recently released a research brief outlining the employment challenges faced by adults 55 years old and older. The researchers were primarily interested in whether job search strategies differed between younger and older workers and how different the impact of the recession was on older versus younger workers.  The most troubling finding has been echoed in other recent reports; namely, unemployed older workers are less likely to find new employment than their younger counterparts.

Using data from a recent study conducted by the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, Boston College researchers were able to raise some provocative questions about why older adults are struggling particular hard in this poor job climate. This survey interviewed nearly 1000 people in March of 2010 who had been part of another study of people who had lost jobs during 2009. This study revealed widespread reemployment struggles among all of the unemployed. 80% of the original sample was still unemployed a year later.

Researchers estimate that there are roughly 15 million unemployed Americans currently looking for jobs. Nearly half of these people are considered to be “long-term unemployed”. The Sloan Center report suggests that while the current recession has hit nearly every population segment very hard, older job seekers are having a significantly harder time reentering the workforce than younger adults. Some key findings:

1)    Many older adults are supplementing their job searches with part-time employment, while others are dropping out of the labor force believing they will never find a new job.

2)    Significantly less older respondents (12%) than younger adults (20%) had taken education or training courses during their unemployment.

3)    Financial problems related to job loss have severely impacted the retirement and savings accounts of older workers

4)    Older workers commonly point to age discrimination to explain their prolonged unemployment

5)    Older job seekers are using a different set of job search tools than younger job seekers.

Many of these findings are by now very commonplace. They have been produced and reproduced in various studies and news reports. What is unique in this study is the last finding related to job search tools. Both young and old workers employ a very diverse array of job search tools and strategies, which provides a potential avenue for crafting alternative theories about the unemployment crunch faced by older workers.

Even though the average job seeker of all ages utilizes three to four job search strategies at a time, the specific mix of job search tools used by older adults is significantly different. Older unemployed workers strongly favored the newspaper’s classifieds in their job search, while younger employers relied heavily on networking with their former employers. Additionally, younger workers are much more likely to incorporate social media into their job searches than older workers.

The report goes on to suggest that younger workers may have closer social connections to hiring managers through forms of new media and, consequentially, are much more likely to engage in personal interactions with potential employers. For example, of the older adults who use the internet for job searches, they were much more likely to use websites where they were an anonymous user or was a company job board (56%), while the most common tool by younger workers was Facebook (51%). Not surprisingly, older workers were much more likely to believe their job search tools were ineffective than younger workers.

Could it be this simple? Are older adults merely using out-of-date methods to find jobs? What about other potential explanations for why older adults have a harder time finding jobs? Age discrimination and employer preferences to hire someone at a lower salary are also commonly cited reasons for the employment gap between the young and old. What do you think?


Source: Heidkamp, M., Corre, N., Van Horn, C. 2010. The “new unemployables’: Older job seekers struggle to find work during the great recession. Issue Brief 25 The Sloan Center for Aging and Work at Boston College.

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