Other Voices: The Job Search for Older Workers


We humans are hard-wired to share cultural experiences through storytelling. So for this week’s post, I’ve turned to three friends who have agreed to share their stories about employment, career and networking.

Of the three, two are close to my age, which is to say, within a few years of retirement. The other is somewhat younger – however, the breadth of his experience speaks to many of the same issues.

I’ve agreed to redact their names to protect their privacy. Here’s a snapshot of what they had to say.

Question 1: When you’re looking for a new job, or thinking about doing so, what factors are most important in your decision?

  • Two of the three talked about “finding work that’s interesting (and) excites me,” or to put it another way, “look(ing) for jobs that offer interesting subject matter more than ladder-climbing positions that will get me to the next level.” This passion for subject matter, in at least one case, was more important than money.
  • The third also talked about the ability to have an impact. “I don’t have to be changing the world, just doing something that will make things better for at least one person, even if that means it’s easier for a colleague to their work the next day.”
  • All three talked about the importance of culture, fit and good management.
  • On that point, “Culture isn’t always defined by what’s in a workplace: I don’t need foosball tables or bean bag chairs. What I need to know is that the group of people I hope to work with are committed to doing good work, and to supporting others who want to do good work as well.”

Question 2: Is your approach to the job-search process different today than when you began your career, and if so, how?

  • This one yielded some really fascinating and insightful responses. My friends all felt that that as they matured in their respective careers, they were more interested in the here and now than in the future.
  • For example: “Towards the beginning of my career, I often focused my job search on what could be next: instead of focusing on the job where I was being considered. I wasn’t in the present, I was in the future — a very utilitarian, almost to a fault view – on job searching. Now, I’m much more mindful of the opportunities in front of me.”
  • Similarly: “In my youth, I use to look at job opportunities from a careerist perspective. What jobs were going to give me greater responsibilities and commensurate salary increases? Today, I take a different approach. With retirement on the horizon, I no longer view myself as having a career. Instead, I focus on maintaining employment in a position that makes me happy.”
  • The idea of increasing self-confidence that comes with age was also important: “Long ago, I needed the experience to build a portfolio but now my skills speak for themselves and I have the products to back it up, so less stress there.”

Question 3: How do you overcome the biases that hiring managers sometimes have about people of different ages?

  • Even the youngest of my three friends has had some telling experience on this one: “I’m conscious that, as I’ve always been on six-month contracts in government and never had a permanent position, I’ll become more expendable as I age; I’m already feeling that now. My main focus has been to keep building skills, to make sure I’m always learning and adapting, but mostly, I can start to play the experience card.”
  • All three were keenly aware of the challenges that these biases can present, although they had somewhat differing views on how to address them: “As a Baby Boomer, I’m from the generation who thinks I must overcome the bias, whereas it’s really up to the hiring manager to be self-aware of their own biases and watch out for it in the hiring process.”
  • There was also a quite understandable sense of exasperation: “The fact that I want flexibility and choice in my work schedule only serves to further reinforce the negative stereotype that only the young are willing and able to go the extra mile.”

My friends’ experiences are unique to them, just as mine is to me. At the same time, it was enlightening for me to see and hear that I’m not necessarily alone in how I’m feeling about my career and my prospects from here on.

I’d like to express my thanks to the friends who have given so generously of their thoughts, their time and their experience. It’s friends like these who continue to sustain me, to encourage me and to give me the support I need to be successful.


Larry Till is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Nancy Copeland

The comment about interest in a flexible work schedule reinforcing a negative stereotype of the older worker is intriguing. I’m finding that younger workers are searching for the work-at-home option or flex time option as important aspects of their job. If they don’t find these options available in their current position, then they move on. Government needs to really rethink its approach to the work-life balance issue if it wants to retain good staff – young or old.

Larry Till

You’re absolutely right, Nancy. And it’s not just government. All employers have to recognize that the next generation of workers – who will eventually be managers and leaders – has a very different relationship to the workplace. The model that started with the industrial revolution and hit its stride in the post-war era no longer holds.

richard regan

Would You Rather be Lucky or Good?
If you think about it a moment, an early experience with bias was our first job application. A job announcement is essentially a statement of bias. The employer can write the job application any way they choose. They determine the skills, qualifications, requirements, educational standards and salary levels for the job. They decide how long the job announcement stays open. They can even influence how the job notice is distributed. And ultimately, they decide who gets interviewed as well as who gets hired.

I have been thinking about this issue after talking to some of my Generation Boomer friends who lost their jobs as a result of the Great Recession. Some of them think they are being victimized by age bias in their current job pursuits. They are advised to not include a personal email address from AOL since employers will assume they are too old for the job. Get a Yahoo or Gmail email address they are told to make them appear more contemporary.

A Latina friend of mine was instructed by a recruitment expert to drop Maria from her name and use the Anglicized version of Mary. Since she married a citizen of the USA and kept her maiden name, they suggested she use her husband’s red, white and blue Irish last name and not her birth name in job searches.

To make matters worse, here comes the US Merit Systems Protection Board in a January 2015 report which concluded that based on a 2011 survey of 10,000 federal government Human Resource professionals, that Uncle Sam may be biased in his hiring practices.

Some of their findings include:
• Overreliance on special hiring authorities that limit the size and composition of applicant pools.
• Misuse of hiring flexibilities by managers selecting favored candidates.
• Human resource professionals seeing their role as customer service agents to supervisors as opposed to protectors of merit and opponents of prohibited personnel practices.

The late President Theodore Roosevelt must be turning over in his grave as remnants of the spoils system appear to be raising their ugly heads at the federal level. Is the current meritocracy system advocated for by our 26th President of hiring the best qualified candidates under attack by biased hiring officials?

John and Rhonda Hunter back in 1984 out of the University of Michigan wrote about how challenging it is to select the best applicant. They indicated that a typical job interview only increases the likelihood of choosing the best candidate by less than 2%. They concluded that if you combined that 2% with the 50% chance of landing a job by flipping coin, you only stand a 52% probability of selecting the right employee.

Is getting a job more luck or science? The late Lefty Gomez a Major League baseball pitcher may have had it right when he said, “I would rather be lucky than good.” Based on our current hiring climate, I think most federal government hiring officials would probably agree.