CHICAGO — Charlotte Doyle hit the gym two hours a day, embraced the latest fashions and made sure that not a strand of gray peeked through her thick blond hair. But at age 61, she got pink-slipped from her job in pharmaceutical sales. So in 2009, shortly after she was laid off after 29 years, Doyle decided to take an unorthodox step in a cutthroat job climate and get her teeth straightened.
"I need to do everything I can to be competitive," said the Homewood, Ill., resident, flashing a gleaming mouth of metal. "I desperately want to work."
While most older job seekers know the importance of keeping their skills current, some are applying that same advice to their faces. From orthodontics to eyelifts — and everything in between — they are turning to such enhancements to gain an edge in the workplace.
Looks matter. In a quarter-century of research, Nancy Etcoff, a psychology professor at Harvard Medical School, has found that attractive people are more likely to be hired and promoted, earn higher salaries and be perceived as more intelligent and creative than their less fetching peers.
Not that plastic surgery, cosmetic dentistry or other elective treatments have escaped the recession. In 2009, doctors performed 12.5 million cosmetic procedures, a figure that has steadily decreased during the previous two years, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. The only gains were in the minimally invasive categories — such as injectables like Botox and dermal fillers — that are less expensive and have scant recovery time.
It's another tool, though perhaps an extreme one, for aging baby boomers, many of whom are counting on working past conventional retirement age as a hedge against longer life spans and shrinking nest eggs.
Teeth whitening? Laser peels? Even "hair systems"? Check, check and check.
No group keeps data on why people take such steps to improve their appearance, but anecdotally, employment is often cited as the primary motivation — a change from earlier decades, when social status and romantic viability topped the list, experts say.
"Patients are saying it's a matter of staying competitive," said Dr. Loren Schechter, a Morton Grove, Ill., plastic surgeon. "Even surgery — facelifts, eyelifts — is coming back to pre-2008 levels. That wasn't there a year ago."
Those older than 55 are among the hardest hit by unemployment, with nearly 30 percent out of work for a year or longer, said a July poll by Pew Research Center.
Companies sometimes insist that appearance is key to conveying a certain image — whether a TV anchor or a hostess at a hot new club.
In almost three decades on the job, Doyle never heard anyone say anything about her looks or her job performance at a pharmaceutical powerhouse. The sales rep said she hit her quotas and nurtured close ties with her customers, many of whom sent cards after the ax fell. She suspects her layoff had less to do with aesthetics than her six-figure salary.
Still, Doyle, now 63, became more acutely aware of age when recruiters told her to omit or finesse key dates on applications. "That didn't seem like a good way to start a relationship," she said.
While she couldn't lie, she could opt for orthodontia. After almost two years on the sidelines, she hopes a new, dazzling smile — to be unveiled in February — along with a willingness to accept a smaller paycheck will change her luck in 2011.
"I would do it all — Botox, lasers, everything — if I could afford it," said Doyle, whose husband retired just a few months before she was laid off. "If it meant getting hired, I would do whatever I could to stop time."
Michael Krause, 65, who logged almost 30 years in the hospitality and publishing industries, still feels like he has a lot more to contribute, but he hasn't had a nibble in a long time. In a labor pool overflowing with qualified candidates, he suspects that his resume gets shoved aside for younger applicants.
"The minute they see my experience, it's over," said Krause, who lives on Chicago's North Side. "I never get a callback. … You feel powerless."
So, he switched strategies — specifically, tackling his droopy eyes, which he said made him look old and tired. Not only did the drowsy appearance detract professionally, but it also was out of synch with his personal life, which includes a wife 12 years his junior and two children, 12 and 14.
Krause scheduled a blepharoplasty to remove excess skin from all four eyelids with Dr. Allen Putterman, an oculofacial plastic surgeon in Chicago.
It's patients such as Krause — not the ultra-wealthy or those in the public arena — who are going under the scalpel today, said Putterman, who has been in practice for 35 years: "I'm seeing lawyers, accountants, people in real estate and finance … and that's new."
Krause has yet to land a job, but he thinks his more refreshed image has provided a boost.
"I'm glad I did it because it has given me more confidence," he said, "and, considering all the rejection, that's something you really need."
Kathy Kacen, 59, understands the desire to shore up self-esteem. She has been unemployed or underemployed since 2005, when she returned to Chicago from a Peace Corps stint in Armenia, but she would never get "work" done.
"It's just not me," she said. "If I had that kind of disposable income, I'd invest in education."
Better packaging won't necessarily get you the nod as much as the ability to adapt to a constantly changing workplace and networking, said Jacquelyn James, of the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College.
"Of course, you want to do everything possible to look appealing, but you don't have to restructure your face," said the 63-year-old research director. It's more important to be social and "get in front of people and show them the positive energy and the light in your eyes."
Still, Linda Stanojevic, 53, is hedging her bets. As owner of Shears to You in Oak Lawn, Ill., she worried how she could be credible selling beauty when her skin showed the tug of gravity: "How am I going to make someone else look attractive if it seems that I don't care about my looks?"
In November, she zapped her problem areas, including undergoing a mid-facelift and a chemical peel, to improve tone and texture. Cost: $10,000, none of it covered by insurance, but financing available.
"I consider this an investment in my business," she said.
The newly retouched Stanojevic spoke as she coiffed a 64-year-old client — a receptionist in a doctor's office — who still works but knows the sting of age bias.
Her thinning tresses had become so obvious that she was given an ultimatum: Do something about your hair or be transferred to a job with less patient contact.
Eventually, the Evergreen Park resident found her way to Stanojevic, who artfully blended an addition with the woman's hair to instantly create a voluminous effect.