We're still getting lots of letters about age discrimination from older workers. Some are sad tales of workers who say they lost their jobs because of age bias and were left unable to pay their mortgages or stripped of health insurance. But we've also heard many success stories from older workers who have overcome the obstacles and found jobs they love, and we'll share some of their insights today about how to survive and prosper in a youth-obsessed world.
One reader who reacted strongly to the recent columns was Ida Castro, chairwoman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces U.S. civil rights laws in the workplace. She urged readers who believe they have suffered age discrimination to contact the EEOC, anonymously if they fear retaliation or being blackballed by their industry.
Castro, who has spoken to workers across the country for the EEOC and in her previous job at the Labor Department, said anecdotal evidence suggests age discrimination begins for women at about age 34 and for men at about 40.
Age discrimination at work is bound to diminish in time. Powerful demographic forces, including an aging population that is remaining healthy longer and a declining pool of younger workers, make it inevitable. There already are signs of change: Exec-U-Net, a Connecticut-based career-management firm, recently surveyed 800 executives aged 51 to 55 and found that 36 percent of them considered age bias a factor in a job search, compared with 58 percent who viewed it as an issue one year earlier.
"As the youth pool declines, employers will recognize the need to get more out of the largest segment of their work force--those age 45 and older," management consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide said in its 1999 report "Demographics and Destiny."
For those concerned with the here and now, however, here are readers' and experts' survival hints:
A 62-year-old woman, who described herself as a "VERY well paid" self-employed consultant managing information technology projects, said older workers should consider the independent contractor route, though they will need to purchase their own health insurance. "When they hire a contractor, it's like buying a gross of pencils," she said. "They're not looking to see how well you'll fit in."
A 56-year-old database manager said he recently was choosing among three good job offers. His recommendations: Maintain a "hot skill set," such as proficiency in the C++ and Java computer languages, Unix, Windows NT, and computer networking; stay away from job shops where inexperienced programmers are employed hacking code 70 hours a week, because those jobs are family-unfriendly; study the market to know what companies need; get a company's organization chart on the Web or by phone and send your resume to the highest possible person, because junior employees will seldom refer an older worker to top management.
"Attitude is critical," he wrote. "If you have the right attitude--'can-do, I've studied it at home, show me a sample problem'--you will overcome many of the misperceptions that younger persons have of older persons."
A 64-year-old technical manager agreed that a modern attitude is key. He said the hierarchical worldview, which places a premium on saluting at the right moments, is dangerous in today's corporate world, where workers need to be proactive about recognizing both problems and opportunities and dealing with them effectively in teams.
Older workers seeking to describe themselves to potential employers should use youth-oriented adjectives, said economic consultant Marc Bendick Jr., an expert on age discrimination. Good terms, he said, are "energy," "adaptability" and "up-to-date technology." Bad words are "stability," "experience" and "leadership." Bendick said older workers who do not stress attributes viewed positively risk falling victim to unspoken and even unconscious prejudices among hiring managers.
He called it the "Grecian Formula" strategy: "The wise older applicant fights to be competitive" by recasting himself, he wrote.
And though it seems shallow, of course, personal appearance remains a decisive employment factor, both in getting hired and fitting in afterward. The 62-year-old technical manager said she wears jeans and sweat shirts to work, because that's what younger workers do. Bendick suggested that workers look at their hairstyles, eyeglasses, makeup and clothes to determine whether they look outdated.
"Better to be brutally honest with yourself than to have the job market be even more brutal with you," he wrote.
Don't take it too far, though: Sixty-year-old men look menacing, not attractive, if they sport tattoos, and electric-blue eye shadow looks good on a teenage girl but passe on a 50-year-old woman. But appreciate youthful fashion trends: "Great earring, Matt, where'd you get it?" is the best reaction when a youthful co-worker comes in with a pierced nostril, one reader said.
On the resume issue, the consensus among readers and experts was to specifically mention only the last 10 to 15 years of work experience and simply add a line that says "other relevant experience." Some said to include your graduation year; others advised against it. Definitely include an e-mail address and other items that illustrate computer literacy.
Hang in there, and find ways to bolster yourself through what may be a long job search. A legal secretary in her sixties said the older-worker support group she attended, run by an organization called Green Thumb, helped her to maintain a sense of perspective and offered valuable, objective critiques of her job-search strategy until she found her dream job.