Older job seekers face challenges

After 38 years, it was all over. Jim Rowatt got in his car and left the parking lot for the last time, worried, upset and, for the first time in his life, unemployed. The small machine shop where he’d spent almost four decades had folded unexpectedly when a major longtime customer ran into difficulty and stopped buying. The company’s owner made the decision to wind up the 55-year-old business and pay off creditors rather than struggle to modernize and face almost certain bankruptcy.

“I didn’t see it coming,” says Rowatt, who handled much of the purchasing for the firm. “I figured I’d be there until I retired. Unfortunately, I’m not ready for that. Financially, I have to go back to work.”

With the same company for virtually the whole of his working life, he admits he hasn’t a clue what jobs are available.

“I’ve been sheltered,” he says, “but I’m willing to learn, and I’ll try hard and do the best I can.” With the many contacts he’s developed within his industry, he plans on focusing his job search on a position as a buyer.

Use your network
“The toughest job you’ll ever have is looking for a job,” warns Lynn Styles, 58.

When r services as an executive assistant at a financial institution were no longer required, she received a generous severance and office support as she sought another job. It was a bit like intensive care for unemployed people, she says, for people who were still in denial. And it had its downside.

“I didn’t hit the sidewalk or use my network,” she says. “It wasn’t until I got frightened about money that I actually sat down with someone and worked out how much time I had to find a job before I ended up in financial peril. That gave me a sense of reality and a schedule to work to.”

Older job hunters
Canada has plenty of 50-plus job hunters out there. Statistics Canada estimates for 2000 show a labour force of almost 16 million. Nearly 1.1 million are looking for employment, including 141,000 men and 118,000 women aged 45 to 64-more than a quarter of a million people.

According to a study on older worker adjustment programs done for Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC), most older workers like Rowatt and Styles who lose their jobs want to find another full-time job.

However, they also face barriers, which may include:

  • Lower educational levels
  • Outdated skills
  • Lack of job-seeking know-how
  • Negative stereotyping by employers about their abilities, ambitions and productivity.

The study adds that as a group, older workers are less likely to lose their jobs than are younger people but, once unemployed, they’re likely to be out of work longer.

They’ll also return to work at disproportionately lower wages. And a higher proportion of older workers gives up looking for work and, therefore, isn’t counted statistically among the unemployed.

Changed job scene
Today’s job scene is dramatically different from the one Jim Rowatt entered in the early 1960s. Technology and globalization have transformed the workplace. Instead of a traditional, orderly progression of education followed by employment and concluding with retirement, the present working world demands an ongoing learning curve.

It also requires the emotional and financial wherewithal to cope with short-term contract jobs or layoffs resulting from public or private sector downsizing.

“Whether you’ve been let go, downsized or fired,” says Lynn Styles, “there’s a sense of failure. You tell yourself there’s nothing personal, but it’s very personal.” And corporate-speak-like  strategic restructuring, de-employing, workforce adjustment or rightsizing-is still a kiss-off, still demeaning to someone suddenly out of work.

“The 50-plus group wasn’t brought up in that environment,” observes Christine Thomas, a partner in the Toronto office of Ray and Berndtson, an international executive search firm. “Being out of a job doesn’t feel as okay to them as it does for a 35- to 40-year-old who’s been brought up to believe that moving around is not a big deal.” 

Subtle discrimination
While early retirement is an option for some, others have children to get through college, mortgages to pay off, and savings to accumulate for later-in-life living. They need another job and they’re scared they won’t find one because someone might think they’re too old.

“One of the realities of our society is that there’s discrimination-subtle and sometimes not so subtle – around age, colour, gender, etc.,” acknowledges Robert Watson, manager of The Danforth Human Resource Centre. It’s one of the employment resource centres operated by HRDC in Toronto.

“One of our goals is to try and combat that ageism through targeted programs.”

Keep up to date
Watson’s experience tells him mature workers can and do land good jobs.

“It’s a matter of keeping skill sets up to date and attitudes positive,” he says. “I think that anyone who is persistent and pursues the programs that are available has a good chance of getting work.”

Demographics may be on the side of the 50-plus.

“I’ve been reading an awful lot lately about the pendulum turning. Instead of wanting to get rid of older workers, soon companies are going to be begging mature, experienced workers to stay,” Watson says.

Employers need workers
Robert Brown, a professor of actuarial science at the University of Waterloo, agrees.

“The reality of the marketplace is that there are now as many retirees as young labour entrants. So to maintain a stable labour force, we’re going to have to look at holding onto people well beyond 50 because we simply won’t be able to find enough 20-year-olds,” he says.

“It really means that elderly workers are going to be playing with some advantage in the labour game. They’re going to be able to call their shots, such as more flexible work arrangements, more flexibility in being in and out of the pension plan-what we call a transition to retirement.”

Brown’s words hearten those who responded last fall to the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s consultation-and call to arms-on the human rights issues facing older Ontarians. They demanded an end to mandatory retirement conventions that forced capable 65-plus workers from jobs they loved and needed, or left employees unprotected by the Ontario Human Rights Code once they reached age 65.

Older workers valuable
Among the recommendations in the commission’s report, Time for Action: Advancing Human Rights for Older Ontarians, released late in June 2001, was a call for the Ontario government to change the code to shield 65-plus workers.

The commission also committed to a campaign aimed at both employers and employees to make them aware of the value of older workers and to dispense with the myths surrounding them.

“These people are valuable assets. We’ve taken some really good people and thrown them on the trash heap. That’s pretty irresponsible,” says Brown.