Out of Retirement and Into Uncertainty

THE NEW YORK TIMES - Kelley Holland
May 27, 2007

Think of retirement and a picture emerges of a grand send-off at the office, followed by travel, hobbies, grandchildren, and a pension and a Social Security check to pay for it all. But after awhile, the retirement fund may start to feel a little skimpy, or the golf course a little dull — or both — and the concept of returning to work becomes, well, more than a concept.

But there’s a catch. When older workers look for jobs, they may get as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield. It often takes many weeks, or even months, for older workers to find jobs, distinctly longer than their younger counterparts. In 2006, for instance, workers age 55 or older spent an average of 22 weeks looking for work. That was down from 24 in 2005, but still far longer than the 16-week job hunts of workers under 55, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the same vein, a study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, sampling employers in Massachusetts and Florida, found that younger workers were about 40 percent more likely to be called in for job interviews than were candidates 50 or older.

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Gary Phelan, a partner at Outten & Golden, a firm specializing in employment law, says he hears periodically from older job seekers who believe they have lost out on jobs because of their age. Discrimination in hiring is hard to prove, he said, because the hiring process itself inevitably involves some discretion. But he says that he sees claims of age discrimination increasing in the workplace, and that he believes older workers’ job-hunting difficulties are not abating.

”Every day I hear when I represent someone in an age case, ‘Well, I’m 58 and I have 30 years of experience and no one’s going to want to hire me,’ ” he said. ”And I have to acknowledge that yes, it’s going to be harder.”

Even when older workers are hired, he said, they sometimes wind up in jobs that pay less than their old ones or that require less expertise. ”When most employers talk about diversity, they are rarely talking about age,” he said.

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Some managers are becoming more open to older job seekers. They may offer incentives for their own retirees to return, like the chance to pick up their benefits where they left off. Or they may work with a community group that gives older workers training in order to groom potential new hires.

Perhaps the most organized outreach to older job seekers is in the health care industry, where labor shortages are significant. Yale-New Haven Hospital, for example, is ”definitely, absolutely” facing a labor shortage, according to Nancy Collins, the director of human resources. So it has stepped up its presence at job fairs, increased online advertising and recruited more aggressively at nursing schools.

To reach older job seekers, the hospital runs a refresher program for nurses who have not worked in years, but who have kept up their licenses, and then gives them incentives to work at Yale-New Haven.

”What we gain from employing an older worker is, first of all, maturity,” Ms. Collins said. ”Also judgment from having been workplace-hardened, and the body of knowledge they have. When we take a new graduate out of school, our rule of thumb is it will be two years until we call them an experienced nurse. When we get an older worker, they bring all that value to us, and sometimes the work ethic is better.

”Are older workers more likely to fall victim to diseases and so on? I’m sure that’s true. But there are certain other risks associated with the younger generation. I see a level playing field.”