They're skilled, they're smart, they're seasoned. Why isn't anyone hiring these over-fifties?
When David Weiss’s boss asked to meet him in the conference room at 1:00, just weeks after he’d sailed through his performance evaluation, he knew it wasn’t a good sign. When he walked out of the meeting, he was out of a job. After close to 20 years as a solid performer at a global finance and software company, David was laid off in what he calls a purge of dozens of employees, all of them over 55.
“When I asked them why, they dithered and mentioned the few times I had come late during Selichos, half a year earlier. I pushed for more, but they said they couldn’t go into details,” he recalls. As he tied up loose ends over the next few days, he observed the new hires trickling in. Almost all of them were under 30 years old.
But if being fired for no reason felt like a punch in the gut, the ensuing job search was a total knockout.
“I sent out dozens of résumés online and made many new connections on LinkedIn, but despite my valuable corporate experience, I didn’t net a single interview,” David shares. “I got smart and deleted my graduation date, and removed 25 years’ worth of experience from my résumé to hide my age, but still nothing. Companies research your online profile within minutes, and a gray-haired LinkedIn picture can be all it takes to get passed over. A headhunter told me that a major Wall Street firm told him point-blank, ‘Don’t send us any applicants over 45, because we won’t take them.’ ”
Aware of the odds he was facing, and determined to find work, David was open to a complete career change at a significant pay cut, and he ultimately found a job in the diamond district. But others who were fired alongside him close to three years ago struggled for many months, and some are still job hunting. He’s convinced ageism is the cause.
David isn’t the only one with that perception. An AARP survey in 2018 found that 78 percent of workers over age 45 see age discrimination as a hurdle to getting a job. An employee at another networking company says that “multiple headhunters have told me not to send them anyone over age 40.” According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, job seekers over the age of 55 take the longest to find employment. In 2019, Google agreed to a multimillion-dollar settlement in a federal lawsuit charging that the company systematically discriminated based on age in its hiring process, its second major age-discrimination lawsuit in less than ten years. In March 2021, a similar claim was brought against accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers in a 3,500-member collective action lawsuit; they settled on a multimillion-dollar payout and agreed to enhance their recruiting practices.
With all the negative publicity around age bias, it’s still hard to deny that age-related factors can — sometimes — negatively impact job performance. Disentangling sound basis from bias is tricky, but doing so allows a business to make the smartest hiring choices.
Rivky Frieder, the career specialist at the Met Council Chesed Center in Boro Park, sees a recurring pattern in her work. “A company calls me, looking to fill a position. I tell the person on the phone I have some qualified candidates, and she sounds thrilled. I send over a handful of résumés — usually belonging to people over 50, because that’s who most often reaches out to us for help — and then wait. Eventually I call back to see why they haven’t set up interviews. The hedging takes various forms, including ‘We don’t need anyone anymore,’ ‘I’ll get back to you’ (they never do), and ‘Do you have anyone else?’ The young people we try to place, on the other hand, are consistently offered interviews.”
When she asks employers outright if age is the issue, they don’t say yes — no one wants to get sued for age discrimination — but they don’t say no either.
It’s incredibly exasperating to Frieder, who has met these men and women and knows that many of them are impressive go-getters with a team-player mentality and a wealth of experience. “These are ideal employees. I believe that if they landed interviews, they’d have a good shot at getting the job. The trouble is getting them through the door in the first place.” It’s a belief echoed by others in the job placement industry as well.
As businesses began to rebound from Covid, businessman Joey Goldzal noticed the same trend. While younger unemployed people were finding work quickly, there was a group left behind: employees over 40 and particularly over 50. “These were seasoned, qualified professionals, yet employers desperate to hire wouldn’t even consider them,” he says. Determined to help, he founded AimHire, a not-for-profit organization whose goal is to find suitable employment for this struggling population. AimHire forges connections with businesses in various industries and matches them with suitable employees, whose salaries they subsidize for the first three months of employment as an incentive for businesses to work together with them.
But while age bias is real, things aren’t so clear cut. Jeff Kapelus, owner of executive recruiting and consulting firm Capstone Search Solutions, has been in the recruiting world for 20 years. He says that while age discrimination was more prevalent 15 to 20 years ago, today the chief complaint of employers is a shortage of talent, and if a job seeker of any age has got it, employers are happy to sign him on. “There are always companies with biases,” Kapelus says, “but the majority of both large and small companies, from what I see, don’t discriminate by age. Employers appreciate the maturity, work ethic, and interpersonal skills that seasoned workers bring along with their experience.” Another financial and health-care headhunter concurs, saying “Companies describe their ideal candidate, and age never comes up as a factor.”
There’s no simple way to explain the differing experiences of those in the field; it’s likely that both the job requirements and culture of the individual workplace, as well as those of each industry as a whole, play a part.
In a decidedly unscientific, anonymous survey for this article, 13 employers in different industries (medical practice, law, design, bookkeeping, retail, computer programming, etc.) were asked the following: If you had a position to fill, and you received a résumé from a 57-year-old, would you give him an interview? Five responders gave a confident yes, four gave an unequivocal no, and four said it would depend on the position.
In 2007, at the age of 23, Mark Zuckerberg posited, “Young people are just smarter.” (Interesting if he still feels that way today, closing in on 40?) While that claim might seem easy to refute, there are certain disadvantages that an older job seeker may bring to the table.
Technology is an issue that comes up again and again; employers have a strong concern about older employees and their ability to catch on to new tech skills. As one 71-year-old job seeker acknowledges, “People my age are not one, but two generations behind when it comes to technology.”
Naomi Streicher, a real estate broker in Pomona, New York, shares her experience. She hired a 65-year-old woman to do clerical work. “Her job was to input information from calls into our computer system and to send me messages by email. It turns out she had a complete mental block when it came to computers. I tried to teach her, two others in the office tried, but she just couldn’t get the basics. She had great phone skills, so I ended up keeping her. She takes down the information by pen and someone else inputs it into the system. It’s definitely not an efficient way do business.” While extreme, the story reflects a general stereotype that makes companies hesitate to employ older employees.
It’s not only tech abilities that concern employers contemplating older hires, but also their ability to pick up new skills needed for the job. The owner of a liquor store puts it this way: “A lot of my business is via social media. My clientele tends to be young and ask questions about things like Uber Eats, for example. Customers expect you to be able to meet their needs, so my staff has to be up-to-the-minute with our operations. I’ve hired older people in the past who had a hard time keeping up, and it affected their job performance,” he says.
Another concern echoed by employers is speed. An employer of payroll processors in New Jersey says he only hires people in their twenties. The job is stressful, with constant deadlines, and he believes older people would struggle to work at the required pace.
Even without deadlines, employers want two feet on the gas and are concerned seniors can’t deliver. “My customers are young and always in a rush,” the liquor store owner says. “An older salesperson who worked for me was constantly looking for her glasses, and I’d see customers squirm with impatience. It was bad for business.”
One employer argued that older workers wouldn’t fit in with the young culture of his office. When challenged on this point, he conceded, “Maybe I do have a bias.” It’s precisely the “we want a young vibe” exclusionary practices that are at the core of big-business age-discrimination lawsuits.
And then there’s this recurring statement: “I’d love to hire older people, but it just won’t work because we can’t meet their salary expectations.”
Shaul C. Greenwald, Esq., CEO of Riverside, a title insurance and real estate services company, explains: An accountant has been with a company for 20 years. Over that time, the expertise and loyalty he has developed make him very valuable to the company he works for, and his increasing salary reflects that. And then for whatever reason, at 55 he’s looking for a new job. He was making $200,000 at his old job, so that’s what he believes his market value is.
“His thinking is faulty,” Greenwald says. “While he may have been worth $200,000 to his old employer, he doesn’t bring that same value to a new company — he hasn’t yet proven himself there. If an older job seeker comes to me with reasonable salary expectations based on the position he’s applying for, I’d be happy to hire him, even over a younger person — he’s likely more settled and not looking to jump from job to job for a few extra dollars. But this doesn’t seem to happen.”
Greenwald brings up another issue — the increasing expenses frum people have to meet as they get older and the expectation that salaries should increase accordingly. “When asking for a raise, instead of pointing out their value to the company, people often give a litany of their growing expenses. It’s true that as people get older, their expenses grow — they’re marrying off kids, supporting them in kollel, etc. — and a person in their fifties looking for a job will expect a salary that covers all that. Most employers want to help their employees as much as possible. But at the same time, it’s an employer’s responsibility to make sure the company doesn’t become too expensive to run, and that requires salaries to be commensurate with the going market rate for a particular position,” he says.
How, then, should these expenses be met? “This is a community problem more than an employer problem,” Greenwald avers. “While there’s no easy solution, we need societal changes that make frum life more affordable.” In fact, during the height of Covid, Greenwald spearheaded a community simchah initiative to significantly scale back the size of weddings.
Akiva Eisenstadt is a board member of Parnassah Exchange, a resource hub that matches employers with employees. He agrees that most of the time, it comes down to money. “For instance, an employer looking for someone to manage accounts receivable might think: Why should I hire someone experienced for $120,000 when I could take two geshikt guys straight out of kollel at half price each, who’d be up to speed in a few months? If older people were willing to work for that price, they might get the job — but at their stage of life and experience, they wouldn’t consider it,” he says.
The 55-year-old accountant who believes he’s worth $200,000 because he got it after 20 years on his last job may have expertise in outdated information systems, for example, or his paycheck grew more from loyalty to the company than actual expertise, and his view of his worth is inflated. On the other hand, he may deserve every dollar of that $200,000, but he still stands a good chance of getting passed over for the 45-year-old who’s also experienced but is perceived as more energetic and with more years to give the company, or for the 30-year-old who’s cheap and trainable. Either way, Eisenstadt says, holding out for that $200,000 he thinks he’s worth can set him up for a never-ending job search.
One small business owner related that she can’t afford to hire older workers — the older they are, the more she’s required to invest in their retirement fund. Pension planner Elimelech Piasek weighs in. “It’s absolutely correct that with a defined benefit plan, even if a 50-year-old is making only $30,000, it can cost the employer over $10,000 a year toward his pension,” he explains. “Almost half of all pension plans present some form of this liability for businesses, but many business owners aren’t aware of the fine details of their plan and how expensive it can be to hire older workers.”
Another refrain: Young people can be molded; older people are set in their ways. “I have no problem hiring an older secretary, but when it comes to architects, I look for college grads,” the owner of an architecture firm shares. “Designing a building requires a tremendous amount of creativity, and I want to mold the way my architects think — older brains have set ways of looking at things, and that can hamper creativity.”
Getting a Foot in the Door
A mature job seeker needs to be his or her own best agent. Some pointers on how to accomplish that:
Network, network, and then network. Tell people you’re looking for work, let them know your strengths, and connect with networking organizations that can vouch for you to a pool of employers.
When she was 67, Rose Deutsch had sent her résumé to many, many places, with no success. Two years into her search, a relative heard of a job opening and called the employer, who happened to be her neighbor. “I know a woman who’s a bit older, but she’s a workaholic, and you won’t find yourself a better worker,” she raved. She got the job and her boss loves her, but here’s the kicker: Deutsch had seen this company’s ad weeks earlier and sent them her résumé, but never received a response.
It sounds counterintuitive, but the more qualified someone is, the harder it can be for them to find a job. Employers often prefer someone they can train, who doesn’t come in thinking they know better; they may even feel intimidated by a seasoned veteran’s accomplishments. Large networking resources (like AimHire and Parnassah Exchange) have the best ability to pinpoint an employer who is looking for the exact skills you possess.
“One of the hardest cases we’ve dealt with belongs to a super-qualified analyst in a very specific niche,” says Tzipora Grodko of Aim Hire. “He held a very prestigious position and deserves a top-tiered salary… and he’s still looking for a job three years later. In such cases, responding to ads likely won’t cut it. It takes networking to find someone who’s looking for exactly those skills.”
Be realistic about salary, and take a pay cut if necessary. This can not only help an experienced employee avoid the automatic reject pile, Shaul Greenwald and Akiva Eisenstadt say, but can give him an edge over his junior competitors.
A word of caution from Ahron Gibber, a corporate lawyer in Baltimore: As a job search drags on, an experienced employee may need to consider a more junior position. But a 57-year-old lawyer or accountant applying for a junior position raises an immediate red flag: Why haven’t they accumulated more experience in all these years? “I suggest explaining on the cover letter that you have a lot of experience, you’re applying for this job because of the tight market, and you recognize the salary will be lower. This will attract attention to a résumé that might otherwise be tossed into the garbage,” he advises.
Up your image. Optics are everything, Eisenstadt says, and upping your image may be the most important thing you can do to counteract age bias. If your LinkedIn account isn’t up-to-date, don’t expect a call back. Make sure your résumé sizzles — and be willing to pay the pros to make it so. If you were at the same job for many years, your résumé can come across as stagnant; a well-written résumé will showcase many achievements, even if they were all in one place, justifying why a company should invest in you. Perhaps include that you’re flexible with regard to salary, to overcome the “younger is cheaper” assumption. And if your last job search was in 2005, update the format. “I still get résumés typed on typewriters,” Eisenstadt says. An old-looking résumé will feed the very stereotype you’re trying to avoid.
And take a haircut. “Fixing the résumé can get you through the door, but making a good presentation will help you get the job,” Eisenstadt says. “A 50-year-old guy was looking for a job for a few years. His résumé was terrible, and we advised him to have it revamped by a professional résumé writer; we also sent him to Hat Box for a sponsored (and much-needed) wardrobe upgrade. I can’t say it’s related, but within a number of months he succeeded in finding a job.”
Sharpen your interviewing skills. A 62-year-old man came to AimHire for help after seven years of looking for a new job (while being underpaid at his current one). “His interview skills were poor, and he lacked confidence,” Grodko says. “We spent a tremendous amount of time interview training, and he worked with an executive coach to help him identify his strengths. Seven months after he came to us, we connected with an employer who was willing to consider his skills with our subsidy. With a grant and newfound confidence, he got the job — along with a significant pay upgrade.”
Consider a pivot. An older, unsuccessful job seeker might be wise to focus his search on positions not associated with generalizations about age, even if it requires a career change.
Invest in training. Whether it’s upgrading technology skills to stay current or learning a brand-new skill set, the time and money invested will pay off in spades.
Turn to G-d. Dating Hashkafah 101 applies equally as well in the parnassah sphere. Grodko shares the story of Josh, who was successfully employed for 20-plus years as a project manager for a prestigious company. A very youthful 55, he lost his job during Covid, along with several others in his age bracket. Josh was smart, personable, highly qualified, and had excellent interviewing skills. He spent many months intensely researching the job market and sending out applications. Although he did very well on numerous phone interviews, the follow-up in-person interviews were repeated dead-ends. “When after yet another rejection he cried to me that he just couldn’t tell his wife, I realized something had to change. I suggested that he scale back his research since it was making him a wreck, and learn Chovos Halevavos instead — because in any case, the outcome was already decided,” Grodko says. “I pointed out that just as dating many people doesn’t bring you to your bashert any faster, the same is true with a job search. He followed my advice and put Hashem back in the driver’s seat. Soon afterward a company reached out to us with an opening. Josh was a perfect match, and I asked if they would consider a brilliant 55-year-old. ‘Sure we would, everyone in our company is around that age,’ they told me. They liked him immediately, and just like that, a shidduch was made.”
Doors Wide Open
Sarah Fisher knows firsthand the drawbacks that sometimes accompany age in the workplace. She’s had to let go of a number of older employees in her mortgage company — some couldn’t keep pace, others lacked the necessary computer skills. Yet in her orbit, all things being equal, older applicants get first pick.
“What I love about older workers is their loyalty, responsibility, and integrity. Their value system is different, and it provides very good fabric for an office environment,” she says. “I recently hired a woman in her mid-fifties. Her computer skills are just passable, but she more than makes up for it in other ways. Coworkers are like a family, and family members always need to gel. This woman is like the mommy of our office — she brings us all together in a positive way.”
Young people are primarily focused on upward mobility, and they tend to have one eye on their job and the other on the lookout for something better, Fisher says — and even employers who hesitate to hire older people agree. In the US, the median tenure for workers ages 25 to 34 is 2.8 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The résumés that come to the Met Council indicate a trend of young applicants staying on a job an average 12 to 18 months; many résumés of people in their twenties and thirties list six or seven jobs in a span of ten years. Yet at the same time, says Yehuda Zellermaier, director of Met Council’s Chesed Center, studies show that a company spends on average $20,000 to $30,000 over the course of six months training in a new hire.
Older people, by contrast, are interested in stability and don’t tend to view their jobs as stepping stones, and job satisfaction is often more important than the paycheck.
“Another team in my office hires only young people, because they’re quicker,” Fisher says. “Three of them, single girls, decided to move to a condo in Florida together and work from there. That doesn’t work for me. The life commitments that come with being a bit older make for more stable employees.”
And the fickleness of youth is hardly endearing. “I took 23-year-old Michelle out of ShopRite, trained her into a new field, and paid her a competitive salary,” Fisher shares. “When she experienced a tough situation at home, I gave her plenty of flexibility. After a year and half, when I finally started to see a return on my investment in her, she gave me two weeks’ notice. When I asked why, she said she’d found a job with a higher salary. I offered to match it, but she said this job was too much pressure for her. If she had told me earlier, I could’ve eased the pressure she felt. After giving her a career path and everything else I did for her, she didn’t have the maturity to have a conversation about her concerns. Older people know how to communicate and have a hakaras hatov that young people often haven’t developed.”
The Met Council has helped hundreds of older people find work, and their consensus is that it’s a population that’s eager to become part of a team, to share their accumulated wisdom and experience in a productive way. They’re confident in their abilities, have a stronger-than-average work ethic, and aren’t constrained by childcare. (And it’s telling that unlike their young counterparts, they never ask how long the lunch break is, Zellermaier says.) The younger ones among them, say those in their fifties, are on the ball, tech savvy, have decades of experience, and believe they should be compensated commensurately. The older set’s goals — those closer to 70 — tend toward keeping vibrant and busy; they shine when it comes to flexibility and reliability and don’t have high monetary expectations.
Frieder’s neighbor is 68 and commutes more than an hour by bus to her accounting job — for the 30th year straight. Frieder offered to find her something closer, but she wouldn’t hear of it. This, Frieder says, is emblematic of the loyalty and dedication of older employees.
Frieder has observed that in the Met Council’s own projects, older folks have an edge when it comes to problem solving. For example, the organization runs a massive food distribution operation before the Yamim Tovim, and managing the flow is challenging. “Older workers see a logjam and can quickly figure out how to adapt the space to be more efficient. This comes from a lifetime of needing to solve problems and think on the spot. The younger workers become overwhelmed and don’t demonstrate that same ability to jump in with creative solutions.”
Research shows that companies that utilize mixed-age teams have higher productivity, and the mentorship older employees can offer younger ones adds substantial benefit to a company.
At the end of the day, Frieder says, employers want talent. “The fact is that an experienced 55-year-old will likely have more potential than a 30-year-old to help your business’s bottom line.”
Basis or Bias?
Loyal, slow, settled, experienced, set in one’s ways, mature — all these terms are generalizations when applied to an entire group of people, and like all stereotypes, true in some cases, not all. When generalizing creates a bias, it’s not only the job seeker who loses out.
Consider the 72-year-old dental assistant whose office closed due to Covid. She resolutely presented herself to one dental office after another, but got no bites. “You can’t be on your feet that long,” she was told (as she stood there on two sturdy feet). Having taught for many years, she then decided to look for work as a classroom assistant. “We’re looking for someone young,” they’d say. “You won’t be able to sit on the floor with the kids.” (False again.) She presented her selling points: bachelor’s in education, years of teaching experience, a knack for getting kids — to no avail.
One 62-year-old woman was let go after working in a large travel-related company for 16 years. “She was polished, up-to-date technologically, professional, confident, and made a superb impression — in short, a real find,” Frieder says. “She sent her résumé to many dozens of places, but rarely got an interview. It’s years later, and she still hasn’t found a job.”
When fully qualified applicants like these face rejection after rejection — or worse, are completely ghosted, which happens often — it becomes clear that bias is at work.
Over-generalizing works against the employer, says Tzipora Grodko, manager of AimHire. “For example, people of all ages can be technologically savvy, and if an employer is willing to take the time to investigate, he may find a worker whose experience adds so much value, without losing an inch on the tech side. Our goal is to reeducate businesses in how they view the market, to help them understand that older individuals can be excellent candidates who can help their company grow. It’s not about chesed, but about mutual gain and profitability.”
Of course, many times the employer’s concerns are valid, and an older person may truly not be a match for a specific position. But if you don’t give yourself the opportunity to see the person is behind the résumé, Grodko and Frieder both say, you might lose out on that rare individual who has the ability to turn your business around.
Zellermaier was looking for a receptionist and agreed to meet an elderly woman who applied for the job. Her passion and compassion blew him away. “She’s so invested in our mission to help people, and her degree of caring has changed the entire atmosphere for both clients and staff. Most people would have seen her résumé and tossed it, imagining a crotchety old lady,” he says. “You can always teach a skill, but you can’t teach compassion.”
Fisher also shares a positive experience with a recent older interviewee: 64, very bright, super quick, highly experienced, and great with technology. “She brought every skill I needed to the table,” she says.
But while the owner of the architect firm acknowledges that there are always exceptions, he says he still operates his business based on what usually works. He finds that office staff he’s hired in their sixties have shown resistance to learning new software, and he claims it would be exponentially difficult for people that age to think in the novel ways required for designing and engineering complex building projects.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 895)
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