For Older Workers, Experience Counts

Dan Holly

By Dan Holly

June is my birthday month and that got me to thinking about long-term unemployment. I am employed, thank God, but statistics show that, the older you get, the harder it is to find a job after losing one.

A number of studies show that the Great Recession that began in 2008 affected different age groups differently. The economy is recovering but the rising tide is not lifting all boats equally. Older workers are disproportionately stuck at the bottom.

For example, a study released late last year by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that, as age rises, the long-term unemployment rate also rises. Specifically, the study found those aged 50 to 64 had the highest percentage among all age groups of unemployed workers who had been out of work at least six months – fully half (50 percent). By contrast, less than one in five (19 percent) unemployed workers aged 16-19 had been out of work at least six months.

There are a lot of factors that explain this. One major factor is that younger workers are at the outset of their careers and any job will do, whereas older workers are looking for specific jobs in their career path. Another factor is that younger workers – with few expenses beyond rent and a car payment – can settle for lower-paying jobs, while older workers may have mortgages, college tuition bills, insurance, etc. Unlike younger workers, they have to hold out for higher pay.

But those factors – all understandable – may not completely explain higher long-term unemployment rates among older job-seekers. A number of observers have pointed to discrimination by potential employers, who buy into stereotypes about older workers: That they are inflexible and cannot easily learn new skills, or that they will only stay on a job for a short time until they can get a better one.

Stereotypes are not always true. In a recent article in Forbes magazine, for instance, Ofer Sharone, an assistant professor at University of Massachusetts, writes:

While some employers fear that older workers will not stick around in their jobs, my research (involving in-depth conversations with hundreds of unemployed job seekers) suggests just the opposite. I’ve learned that no group of employees is more committed than older workers to contributing to a company that gives them a chance to prove their value.

Do older workers find it harder to learn new skills? Perhaps. Do employers have to pay them more? Probably. But knowing how to write code is not everything. Knowledge is not the same as wisdom.

Recently, while travelling, I ate at a barbecue restaurant in Lumberton, N.C. It was a fast-casual type restaurant, the kind where diners order food at a counter then take their tray and find a table. You know this type of restaurant – it doesn’t really have waiters. Workers do come out and clear and clean tables when customers are done eating, but they don’t perform the same role as waiters in sit-down restaurants.

But this restaurant was different. The workers kept coming up to us and asking if we needed anything, how we liked everything, etc. – as if they were waiters at a white table cloth restaurant. Our meals already had been paid for at the counter, so it’s not like they were looking for tips.

The only thing I could conclude is that the restaurant manager had an enlightened attitude toward customer service. But here’s the thing: I didn’t really pick up on that until an older gentleman approached our table. A teen worker talked to us in such a perfunctory manner that I didn’t even notice that he was trying to be customer-friendly. (I thought he was trying to rush us so he could clear our table.)

The older gentleman, by contrast, was friendly and relaxed. He joked with us and chatted us up. Clearly, he was more experienced dealing with people and, perhaps, felt more confident joking with adults.

I was so pleasantly surprised by such good customer service at an inexpensive restaurant that I put a post on Facebook recommending it as a good place to stop along I-95. That free publicity was well earned – by the older worker, not the teen.

A smart manager hired that older gentleman. I don’t know if he earns more than the teen, but he should. I suspect that restaurant is doing well.

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