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Recession, redunancy and dodgy finance companies have put many older New Zealanders back into the job market, and as Donna Fleming writes, it can be a pretty tricky place to be.
Peter Turner knew he had a “snowball’s chance in hell” of getting the job he was about to be interviewed for as soon as he saw one of the other candidates.
“This guy came out from being interviewed before me and he was so young,” recalls Peter, who was 57 at the time and had been made redundant from his management job in the transport industry. “I was easily old enough to be his father. I knew that if they were interviewing people that age I didn’t have a hope.”
Sure enough, Peter didn’t get that job. He didn’t get even get to the interview stage for several other jobs he applied for at the same time, and believes his age was a major factor.
While it is illegal to discriminate against prospective employees on account of old they are, many employers do take age into consideration when they’re hiring. There are times when this can be a good thing, with some bosses preferring more mature people because they’re more experienced and have a reputation for being more reliable.
But being over 50 can also count against you for a variety of reasons. According to research carried out by the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust, some employers believe older people don’t have the same amount of energy as younger applicants and when it comes to jobs involving manual labour, they’re not as physically fit and strong, which is likely to affect their ability to do the work.
They’re also often regarded as being less technically savvy and less able to adapt to new technology.
Auckland careers counsellor Kaye Avery, who has a special interest in older jobseekers, says it can be harder for them to find work, especially in tough economic times.
Kaye, who recently completed a Master’s research project into working later in life, says, “There are a lot of myths around older people in the workforce that may put employers off. These are things like they’re not interested in training and development, and they’re not as agile with technology. That’s not true – many people have kept up with technology and they’re very interested in learning new things. A lot are prepared to retrain and pick up new skills.”
Meanwhile another misconception is that younger people need the work more than older ones, who are better off financially. While this may be true in some cases, many people over 50 need their income just as much as younger ones.
“It’s a myth that older people can afford to retire,” says Kaye. “This is definitely not the case for a lot of people.”
Kaye points out that life is very different for over-50s today compared with previous generations. Many baby boomers have dependant children at home and still owe money on their house, unlike their parents who, at the same age, had paid off their mortgages and, because they started their families when they were in their early 20s, had seen all their children fly the nest.
Meanwhile the recession and collapse of finance companies has meant some older people who were looking forward to giving up work in the next few years and living on their savings and investments are back to square one.
The fact that baby boomers may be used to earning a higher salary than their Generation X or Y colleagues can count against them, says Kaye. They may have to compromise when it comes to their job search, perhaps taking a drop in salary or working fewer hours. They may also need to be prepared to retrain for a new position.
“A lot of people don’t want to start from scratch in their 50s or even 60s but learning a few more skills can make a difference and show willingness,” says Kaye.
Many people find their best chance of getting work is to be flexible about what they’ll do. Some even opt to completely change tack, like John Pringle (59). He spent a large chunk of his working life managing a university bookshop, before running a telecommunications store. He was made redundant from that job and now works as part of a road crew.
“It’s completely different but I love it,” says John. “It is a bit more physical but I’m managing that. They don’t seem to put me on the really heavy duty stuff like shovelling – I’ve been doing things like traffic management, cleaning up, delivering flyers. It’s stress-free and age doesn’t seem to have been a barrier.”
John, who was offered the job by a customer who used to come into his shop, says he feels lucky that the work, “fell into my lap. But I was prepared to do anything.”
Kaye says it may not be possible for all job hunters over 50 to completely change direction but they should at least be prepared to think laterally and instead of looking for exactly the same work as they had been doing, widen their net to include jobs that can make use of skills they already have. “For example, if somebody had been a service technician, instead of only trying to get the same work with another company, they could look at going into customer service, because they will have an understanding of the technology.”
Being realistic abut the sort of work to which you’re suited is also important. When Peggy Kean was made redundant from her administrative job in the travel industry several years ago, among the jobs the 59-year-old applied for was one as a part-time bank teller. “I had absolutely no banking experience so I wasn’t surprised when they told me I hadn’t got an interview for that one,” she says. “It was a bit of a waste of time.”
But the result was the same with another office job she knew she was qualified to do. “I did wonder if it was my age but since they never bothered to get back to me I suppose I will never know,” says Peggy, who went on to land an administration job at a small tourist attraction.
“I think what got me that job was showing that I had a sense of humour. Age didn’t seem to be a factor – I think it was attitude that mattered. I was able to be quite relaxed because I didn’t have to work.”
Lynda Nichols found it difficult to have an upbeat attitude when she was out of work for four years in her late 50s, because she couldn’t get by without a regular income.
“The worst thing was sending out dozens of letters but not hearing back. I think that’s so rude,” says the former accounts clerk, who is now retired. “You do think age must have something to do with it. I never put my age on the applications but when people look at all your experience, of course they are going to be able to work out roughly how old you are.”
Ironically when she did eventually find work, doing the accounts for a couple who owned a chain of petrol stations, she learned that it was her ‘mature years’ that had appealed to her new bosses, who were younger than she was.
“They said they were looking for an older person who was responsible and could be left alone to get on with things.”
Lynda turned 60 while working for those employers and arrived at work to find the petrol station festooned in balloons and banners proclaiming Happy 60th. “My age definitely wasn’t a problem for them.”
Chris Barnes, the managing director of Christchurch-based charity 40+ Employment Support Trust, likes to think most employers are fair when it comes the ages of job applicants. “I’m sure, when it comes down to it, they employ the best person for the job, regardless of age. It’s in their best interest.”
However, she has heard of some cases where people have been blatantly told they’re too old.
“We had one client who went along for a job at a construction site and was told to his face that they didn’t employ anyone over 50. It’s actually illegal to do that but taking them to court is expensive. Most clients just want to get on with getting a job and not cause any fuss.”
Chris says job-hunting can be nerve-wracking at the best of times – especially if you’ve been made redundant and your confidence has taken a hammering – and when you know there’s lots of competition for jobs because of the recession, it can be particularly stressful. People are also likely to find it harder if they’ve been in the same job for many years and are not used to promoting themselves.
“These days it’s not just a case of bowling up with your CV like it used to be. There can be all sorts of vetting and tests you have to go through, which can affect your confidence.
“I think it’s important to be adaptable about what you can do, and possibly consider some kind of retraining. Also make sure you’re up-to-date with skills you may need, like computer skills.”
The 40+ trust is a charity that offers practical help to people over 40 in all aspects of job hunting, from organising a CV to practising interview techniques. It’s one of just a handful of organisations dedicated to finding work for older people.
“About 15 years ago there used to be 16 to 18 agencies around the country that supported mature people – now there’s just a few of us left,” says Chris. “It’s down to a lack of funding.”
Agencies like Work and Income New Zealand can help with job searches, or refer people to organisations in their community that may be useful, while those who can afford it can turn to private career counsellors like Kaye Avery to assist in getting their career back on track.
Kaye says sitting down to work out what skills you have and the steps you’re prepared to take to get work can be rewarding when you realise what you have to offer employers. As well as up-skilling if you need to, she also recommends networking as a way of keeping in touch with what’s happening in your industry.
In the end, it was networking that got Peter Turner (now 61) back into the workforce. After a “despondent” year of being unemployed, he was offered a job thanks to a former colleague he’d stayed in touch with.
It’s in middle, rather than senior, management, not as well paid as his previous position and less stimulating than he would like. “But it is work, and it’s putting money in the bank and keeping me occupied, which I need,” he says. “I’m happy to be doing it.”