Too Old to Hire, Too Young to Retire
The new mid-life crisis.
The unemployment line is developing a middle-age spread. Older workers are more likely to be fired—and less likely to be hired—than their younger colleagues.
By Ellie Slott Fisher
Fifty-year-old Stephen Coveney hadn’t even had his morning coffee when his boss called him into his office. It was December, just before
Christmas, and Coveney, who loved his job as online projects coordinator at a local newspaper, had no idea anything was amiss. Without so much as an “It pains me to do this” from
his boss, the White Plains father of two was told that he was being let go.
“Is it anything I did?” a stunned Coveney managed to ask his superior, a man nearly twenty years his junior. “Is there anything I could have done better?”
“No,” his young boss told him.
The manner in which he was dismissed, Coveney says, “was so callous. The guy
didn’t say he was sorry. He didn’t even know me. He was a new guy in his thirties.”
In a daze, and under the watchful eye of a human resources employee, Coveney, who had been earning nearly $56,000 a year, collected his personal effects and office memorabilia, accumulated during his five-year tenure. Then he was unceremoniously, if politely, escorted to the curb outside the paper’s office.
Coveney, who previously had worked at Urban Box Office, a New York City-based website design company, where he managed bulletin boards and other online communities, took little solace in the fact that he was not the only employee to be “let go” that day, as he would later learn. His discharge was part of a twenty-person staff reduction that consisted of layoffs and early retirements, which included one fellow employee who, Coveney reports, had been with the company for twenty years. “The higher-ups didn’t really tip their hand that this was going to be done,” he says. “This was a shock to everybody.” Especially, Coveney says, to those in his department. “I was surprised because the online division had been doing well.”
He was also very concerned. For the first time in his career, Coveney wondered whether his age was beginning to be a factor—a negative one—in his employment status. Did it have any bearing on his dismissal? After all, Coveney says, his Gen-X boss “often made jokes in our meetings about bands and TV shows we older employees talked about.” And, he wondered, would his age become a factor in his new job search?
He’d learn the answer soon enough. “It’s weird when you are looking for jobs and the vice presidents and directors are in their thirties, and they are looking at you in your fifties with graying sideburns,” he says. “They don’t see someone who is experienced and responsible and will come to work every day. They see an old guy.”
Stuart Rosenbluth, also of White Plains, can relate to that. As Director of Administrative and Accounting Services for a manufacturing company, he was living the good life: twenty-five years with the same employer, a six-figure salary, a worry-free retirement all but assured. Then one numbing day he showed up at his midtown Manhattan office to learn that his job had been terminated, a result of downsizing in his division. “I had a hollow feeling in my stomach,” he recalls.
Rosenbluth, at the age of 55, was ill prepared to start over in a job market that was vastly different from the one he had entered decades before. A job market, as he and Coveney discovered, that routinely passes over candidates like themselves: middle-aged and expensive to hire.
As with so many of the suddenly unemployed, both men found themselves in the frustrating, frightening, and infuriating catch-22 of being seen by many employers as too old to hire, but feeling too young to retire. “Companies now run lean by reducing middle management,” says Joel L. Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania, and chief economist for Commerce Bank. “And who populates middle management? The forty to sixty-year-olds.”
What’s more, today’s job market is very different than yesterday’s. “In the sixties and seventies, the business cycle would go up and down,” Naroff notes, and job layoffs, he adds, would occur during the down cycle. “But people got their jobs back when the economy improved. This job market is more competitive.” For middle-aged, experienced job seekers, it too often seems more than just competitive—it simply may be impossible to re-enter. “Sixty percent of companies will not hire people over fifty,” says career development counselor Diane Negvesky, director of admissions for the School of Graduate and Professional Studies at Manhattanville College in Purchase. Negvesky, 54, relates personally to her students. When she found herself unemployed a few years ago as part of a company layoff in which the entire workforce was released, she discovered what she calls the “hidden job market.” She explains: “Eighty percent of jobs are never listed. The way to get them is through networking.”
According to Andrew Stettner and Sylvia Allegretto,
economists at the Washington, DC-based Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit research organization, Americans older than 45 make up about fourteen percent of the labor force but thirty-seven percent of the long-term unemployed—that is, men and women who have been out of work for at least twenty-seven weeks.
And economist Elise Gould, also with the Economic Policy Institute, says that when the ax comes down, it is more likely to chop the jobs of higher-paid older workers than those of their less well-paid younger colleagues. One reason is obvious: senior employees cost more. Over the years, older employees presumably have accrued more pay raises and more expensive benefits—pensions, longer paid vacations, etc.—than their younger fellow employees. But it’s not just higher pay and more costly benefits that work against middle-aged employees. It’s also their slightly—and in some cases, more-than-slightly—arthritic joints, diminishing eyesight, aching backs, and sometimes hardening arteries. “Their healthcare costs may be higher than those of a younger employee,” Gould notes. And presumably, their absenteeism rates. These factors, together with a cultural bias towards youth that apparently extends to the workplace, have produced a job market in which, ironically, the more experienced one is, the less employable he or she becomes.
Which is a double whammy for today’s middle-aged workers, many of whom don’t see themselves as old, at least not compared to their parents at their age. Though they may be sitting behind a desk from nine to five (or longer) and their waists may have thickened and their hair grayed, many 40- to 65-year-olds are healthy and active—biking, jogging, lungeing, and bench-pressing. They’re not ready to play golf full-time in Arizona—not when they’ve got thirty or more productive years left in them. Today’s life expectancy, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, is 77.6 years—a marked rise from just a few generations ago, when 50 or 60 was considered “elderly.”
But the difference between what older workers want and expect and what the workplace offers is startling. A recent study by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) found that, of the 77 million baby boomers (aged 41 to 59), eighty percent plan to work after retiring from their current careers. And not only because they feel young. With increased life expectancy, embattled Social Security, and inadequate savings, “people are really frightened that they are going to outlive their money,” says Elaine Sozzi, director of the Westchester Library System’s WEBS Career and Educational Counseling Service, an award-winning program that offers free services in local libraries for adults looking to change careers, re-enter the work force, or return to school. These fears are not unfounded. “There are so many divorced or widowed women who don’t have the earning potential their husbands had,” Sozzi says. “They need to continue working.”
Yet, economist Gould reports that they may not be able to
do so—whether divorced, married, female, or male. “Men’s employment rate reaches a peak level of eighty-nine percent at age thirty-nine, and then drops twenty-nine percentage points by age sixty-one,” she explains. Then it gets even worse. “Between sixty-one and sixty-five years of age, male employment rates drop another twenty-five percentage points. At age sixty-five, only thirty-six percent of men are still working.” And lest you dismiss these statistics as evidence of lots of early retirement, Gould points out that the decline in employment is “greater between age thirty-nine and sixty-one than between age sixty-one and sixty-five.” What about women? The statistics for them, experts say, are just as grim.
But as bleak as the numbers are, they don’t tell the entire story—an even bleaker one. “The unemployment rate doesn’t correctly assess how many people want to be working but aren’t,” Gould notes. For example, many firms, rather than lay off older employees outright, offer “voluntary early-retirement packages,” which basically force them to quit. When offered a chance to take their pensions at reduced value or face the prospect of losing them entirely, many workers simply decide to cut their losses. These people actively may be seeking work, but they’re not counted among the unemployed. The sad fact is that “early retirement,” with its connotations of leisure and early windfall, is often a euphemism for “financial peril.”
Linda Moore, 50, this magazine’s associate publisher, recalls the time nine years ago when she moved across the country to join her husband, an audio director for NBC, and was looking for a job. Moore believed then that her age would work against her, given her line of work. “Age can prevent you from getting the interview because, in sales, before they even meet you, they’re thinking, â€˜We want someone young and attractive.’” So she took steps to protect herself against the possibility of age discrimination. To get her foot in the door for interviews, Moore removed dates further than ten years back from her resumÃ©, and she did not include her college-graduation date. The technique got her some interviews, but once she sat across the desk, it was obvious to her that her age, not just her qualifications, was being taken into consideration—even though her interviewers tried to disguise that fact. “They’d say things like, â€˜This job requires someone with a lot of energy, someone who is willing to work a lot of hours,’” Moore recalls. “The implication was that they wanted someone younger, but of course they knew they couldn’t say that. They said, â€˜Look around here and you’ll see what we’re looking for.’ I saw twenty-five-year-olds.”
The inherent prejudices against age in the workforce and other stumbling blocks are compounded by the fact that employers no longer expect or reward resumÃ©s that show longevity in previous jobs. Younger people understand this, according to Naroff, rarely spending years in one place. “Today’s kids enter without a concept of loyalty,” he says. “Their loyalty is to their career, which is very smart. Rather than fear losing their job, they worry about finding the next one.”
Naroff himself lost his job seven years ago, at age 50, when the Philadelphia office in which he worked was shut down. But he did what many middle-aged men and women who suddenly find themselves without a job do—he reinvented himself. Naroff says that the same day he was laid off, he developed a concept for a business plan, which eventually turned into his current business.
Rosenbluth, now 65, also reinvented himself. “Because I was retired, not actually terminated, I had a package that was good for about a year, so I worried less,” he says. “Since I was divorced, I didn’t have the same financial concerns. I didn’t have to support anyone else, so this was more about my quality of life. Still, like a death or an illness, there’s something about losing a job that reminds you that there are things you can’t control. It changes your mindset and you have to learn to navigate the market again. At first, you’re in this hallway of uncertainty, but you have to accept reality, cope, and make the best of it.” After four years as a consultant to a construction company, he returned to his career path in financial management, this time in the not-for-profit sector. Rosenbluth currently is CFO of a nonprofit organization in Central Westchester, where he is earning “a good salary, but not what I was making ten years ago.”
Was the salary cut demeaning? Rosenbluth doesn’t look at it that way: “For-profit pockets are pretty deep, so you can’t really compare the two.” Besides, he reasons, “the past ten years have been years of personal growth because I’ve pursued other interests.”
Peter Hallock of Mamaroneck also changed careers—more than once. Trained as a civil engineer, he began his first job twenty-five years ago at Millstone Nuclear Power Station, Unit 3, in Waterford, Connecticut. But, after the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in 1979, he found himself looking for a new career. “The handwriting was on the wall that perhaps the nuclear-power industry was not a great place to be.” After several more careers and a period of being self-employed, Hallock began helping out in his son’s kindergarten class. Today, at 47, he’s on career number seven, teaching fourth grade at PS 119 in the Bronx. “This career is one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried. But I much prefer to spend the day in a room with twenty-seven children than to spend an hour with some of the people I’ve met in corporate America.”
According to Elaine Sozzi of the WEBS Career and Educational Counseling Service, Hallock’s drastic career change is not unusual for middle-aged job seekers. “Sometimes people have to do something that is very different from what they were doing,” she says. Of course, for newly unemployed people transitioning into other careers or industries, “it can take a little longer to find a job,” says Irvington-based career coach Marcia Grubel. But for many, changing careers—whether by choice or not—can be a great opportunity, the proverbial cloud with the silver lining, particularly if, in the case of a termination or early retirement, they’ve received a severance or buyout package. Then, says Grubel, they can use their money (with the help of a financial planner) and their newfound free time “to develop another business or retrain.”
“Change is the only constant these days,” says Sozzi. “That’s one thing that people have to understand, and that’s one thing that’s harder for older people to deal with.” To help older workers
handle change, the Westchester Library System’s program “Take Charge! Career-Life Planning after Fifty” targets early-stage baby boomers who either want to or need to stay in the workforce. Remaining upbeat and conveying a youthful attitude to a prospective employer is critical, she insists: “If you think you’re old, so will they.”
Westchester Magazine’s Moore couldn’t agree more. “When you are older and you go in for an interview, the first impression is important. If you don’t look up-to-date and have a nice appearance, it will work against you. If they are forty and you are sixty but you look great, I don’t think you will have as much of a problem getting hired as if you were wrinkly and dowdy.”
But even if you’ve buffed and preened yourself to a youthful radiance, boned up on your youth culture, and landed that interview, you’re typically looking at a lower-paying position—or one that is lower on the totem pole. It can be a humbling prospect. “It’s the psychology of it,” says 60-year-old James Finger, director of Manhattanville’s Jump Start, a graduate-level, accelerated, teacher-certification program. “If you were supervising a lot of people and now you’re starting at the bottom again, that’s an adjustment. People don’t care what you did before.”
Unless you’re lucky enough to stumble upon an enlightened youngster who understands—and respects—the value of a track record and is in a position to put his money where his mouth is.
Stephen Coveney appears to be one of the lucky ones. His new boss, a man in his thirties, recognizing the experience and reliability Coveney has to offer, recently hired him for a job similar to his old one—but for $10,000 more per year.
Ellie Slott Fisher is a freelance journalist whose work has been featured in several parenting magazines and anthologies. She is the author of Mom, There’s a Man in the Kitchen and He’s Wearing Your Robe.