People Are Sharing What It's Like To Job-Hunt Over 50 — And It's Harrowing

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Since she got laid off from her job in December, Donna Kopman, 57, has sent out over 300 job applications. From Sunday through Tuesday, the Lake Oswego, Oregon, resident spends eight hours a day at her computer applying for jobs.  The rest of the week, she focuses on researching jobs she will submit applications for the following week.

So far, she has gotten only one job interview with a recruiter.

“It’s really frustrating,” Kopman said. “I’m not trying to shoot for the moon at this point in my career. I just would like gainful employment until I retire.”

Before her layoff, Kopman was a sales operation manager at software company Milestone Systems. She had two decades of sales experience and made $110,000 at her last job. Now she is applying for jobs that earn $60,000 and has broadened her search to include administrative or contract work, in order to get affordable health insurance.

Kopman said she regularly experiences highs and lows with her job search. First, she will get excited by a job and spend hours crafting a personalized application based on how the role aligns with her direct experience. Then, she will have those hopes dashed by an automated rejection 24 hours later.

“It’s like, did anybody even look at my résumé?” she said. That’s when Kopman questions: “Well, is it ageism?”

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Kopman is right to be concerned. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects U.S. workers who are 40 and older from being discriminated against on the basis of age, but the odds are stacked against older job seekers.

If you’re over 50, you are more likely to lose ― or be pushed out of ― your job.  Once this happens, it takes much longer for older job seekers than their younger counterparts to land a job again, let alone a job that pays them what they are used to earning.

In fact, half of people in their 50s are laid off at least once and only 1 in 10 of these workers will ever again earn as much as they did before this setback, according to a 2018 data analysis by ProPublica and the Urban Institute of the Health and Retirement Study.

One major reason it’s so hard to get rehired? Because of machines that rank an older job seeker’s job application.

When older workers apply for a job, they often get rejected by automatic tracking systems that can sort out their résumé based on dates used and skills that they do not list, said Carl Van Horn, a public policy professor and director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. He gave the example of digital skills not being listed, even though they can be easily taught.

Employers “make this assumption and say, ‘Well, they probably don’t know how to do X, Y, and Z.’ Now, of course, on the other side, what we know is that [those] people have been successful in the labor market for a long time. They’re probably good workers,” he said. “But it flies against some people’s attitude about older people and what they can and can’t do.”

And as more employers adopt generative artificial intelligence into their workflow, Van Horn said he expects older job seekers to face potentially more rejections.

The lengths job seekers over 50 go through when applying

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The common advice you’ll get as an older job seeker? Hide any suggestion of your mature age. That’s because hiring managers can make instant judgments based on what you share.

In one experimental study, economist Joanna Lahey sent out 8,000 fake résumés of candidates to hiring managers and tracked what they looked at with an eye-scanning lab. Hiring managers’ eyes were pausing at years of employment history and the year candidates got their education, and ultimately spent more time scanning the résumés of younger candidates.

Kopman said she no longer bothers applying to jobs that ask for a graduation date in their online applications.

Nina, a 55-year-old Allentown, Pennsylvania-based job seeker, said she keeps her 1987 college graduation date off her résumé and, when possible, she avoids including the years she worked at past jobs.

Nina, who asked to be identified by her first name since she is currently employed, said she also purposefully colors her hair for interviews. “I want to go gray so bad, but like our society, they just write you off as invisible anyway, so I’m still coloring my hair,” she said.

On top of these appearance biases, some employers still hold ageist beliefs that older employees are “too stuck” in their ways and that they will not adapt to new business needs, Nina said.

To fight against the assumption that older workers are unfamiliar with technology, Nina posts her LinkedIn and Instagram information on her résumé to show she is up to date on social media.

The financial stress of job-hunting over age 50

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Kopman is aware of how her long-term unemployment is eating into her savings. She has not taken a break since her layoff. Her unemployment insurance will expire in November. She is currently paying $900 a month to retain her health insurance from her past job through COBRA.

“I’d love to take advantage of this opportunity of not working to enjoy myself and do things. But you can’t psychologically allow yourself to do that, because you have no idea what your next real paycheck is going to be,” she said. To stay positive, Kopman said she takes walks.

People keep working and looking for work into their 50s through their 80s both because they want to and because they have to, for their budgets.

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If you were born between 1943 and 1954 in America, you will not get full retirement benefits until you turn 66. And many older workers do not have enough saved up to retire comfortably. About 43% of people between 55 and 64 do not even have a retirement savings account, according to a 2022 survey of consumer finances from the Federal Reserve.

Washington, D.C.-based Elizabeth White, who is now 70, is the author of “55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Life,” which is based on her experiences looking for work. After losing consulting jobs amid the 2008 Great Recession, White said she faced challenges with re-entering the job market, despite her advanced degrees and accomplished employment history.

To make ends meet, she got a roommate and started taking a Greyhound bus at times for job interviews in New York, among other cost-cutting measures.

“It was humbling to have the kind of background that I have and to have this whole thing [happen]. I felt like I had stepped on a banana peel,” she said.

And she’s not alone with experiencing financial insecurity as an older adult. White said a lot of older workers will eventually give up searching for the types of jobs they once had and start looking for what she calls “a casserole of work.”

“So they might [get] a little bit of Social Security, they might rent out a room in their place on Airbnb ... that older guy you see at Trader Joe’s bagging groceries is probably not there because he wants to be,” she said, as an example of what this series of money-making opportunities might entail.

So if you’re an older job seeker, it helps to “get off your throne” and be open to changes and pivots, White said: “Sometimes you have to ... go back a couple of steps before you can go forward.”

Support groups and networking can offer a much-needed confidence boost

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Mark Gyurina, chief program officer for job training nonprofit Operation ABLE, said a common challenge people in their 50s and 60s face is the reality of being single or widowed and needing to get back to work to support themselves.

Darla Jelley is a 57-year-old single mom of a 17-year-old teenager who lives in Boston. Now that her daughter is almost an adult, Jelley wants to re-enter the workforce full time after taking part-time jobs doing eldercare. In April, she graduated from Operation ABLE’s 12-week job training program for older job seekers who meet federal low-income guidelines and are interested in working for medical offices.

Jelley said the program taught her computer skills like how to craft a résumé and how to use Excel and PowerPoint. But more important than teaching her how to save files, the program boosted her confidence, Jelley said.

Before the program, Jelley didn’t have much contact with the outside world except for her home-care clients. “I didn’t think I had anything to offer,” Jelley said about her skills.

Studying to become a nurse has always been Jelley’s dream that she has not been able to afford doing. But through Operation ABLE, she has a few interviews lined up to be a hospital front office coordinator and a pharmacy technician that have tuition reimbursement programs. Recruiters came to her classes, which gave participants “a foot in the door for interviews,” Jelley said.

Jelley said she once used to view her goal of becoming a nurse at 61 as “crazy.” But after her job training, “I don’t consider that at all. Like, I would do it in a heartbeat,” Jelley said.

Even talking with fellow older job seekers can be a much-needed balm. When Greg Bailey lost his job at 56 in 2020, he joined an online job search support program called Who Ya Know four months into his search. He said ageism was one of the most common shared issues people talked about.

“That was a huge lifesaver for me, because it does get very painful, it gets very lonely, especially when you’re not interacting with other people,” Bailey said. “The things that I was feeling, they were feeling too.” Bailey has since found a new sales job.

Research finds that once you have been out of work for more than six months,  it gets significantly harder at any age to find a job, but particularly for older job seekers. That’s why it’s critical for older job candidates to network to get past long-term unemployment biases on top of ageism.

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“Emailing résumés is not going to get you employed, you really have to be out there in the community,” Gyurina advised older job seekers.

He said older job candidates should network extensively through internships, volunteering and part-time work to avoid résumé gaps and build references, and that they should take advantage of help that family or neighbors offer.

You never know who might lead you to your next job opportunity, so make time to invest in your relationships.

“I often find that people in their 30s and 40s are much more knowledgeable about where the jobs are, who are the rising stars, where’s the money, where are the opportunities,” White said. “I’m applying for something now that I would not have heard of, but somebody told me about it.”

White gave a past career success as an example. She said she got into an entrepreneurial incubator, because someone in their 40s who was already in the incubator and had worked with her years ago, told her, “Oh, this would be a good opportunity for you.”

If you’re not finding success with getting a regular 9-to-5 job, it might be time to forge your own path.

White, who is now the founder of NUUage Coliving, which seeks shared affordable housing solutions for older adults, also pointed to entrepreneurship as a growing alternative path older job seekers can take. She cited 2019 research from the job nonprofit Kauffman Foundation, which found that more than 25% of new entrepreneurs were ages 55-64 ― a number up from about 15% in 1996.

What older workers want others to know about job-hunting

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Ultimately, older employees are an asset to any company. Research backs up that older workers are less likely to quit and are more likely to have higher performance ratings than younger colleagues. And at their best, multigenerational teams can share their unique knowledge, networks and experiences for better ideas.

But more hiring managers need to believe in this, too. Until then, don’t count out people just because of their age, older job seekers implore.

“At this stage of the game, I have no kids at home,” Nina said. “I don’t have to be home at 5. I can stay late, I can come in on the weekends, I’m not running out to drive anybody anywhere. To me, it seems like a no-brainer, like, ‘Give me this job.’”

Nina said losing out to job candidates who are 20 years younger than her can make her feel self-doubt, but ultimately, “It’s your age, and ... it’s their loss.“

Nina is currently the oldest person at her video production job, and when she started, she believed she got “OK grandma” vibes from certain younger colleagues who avoided interacting with her. But the teammates who did take the time to know her now “lean on me for everything.” “You’ve got to be a trailblazer at a certain point,” Nina said.

So don’t be ashamed of highlighting the skills and experiences your long career has given you. In the eyes of the right employer, it’s what will make you stand out. In his job interviews, Bailey highlighted the fact that “I don’t have to learn those things; I already know them.“

Or as Kopman puts it: “People over 50 are not ready to be put out to pasture. We have so much experience and personal learnings to be shared with colleagues who are new to the workforce.”This article originally appeared on HuffPost.