By Mike Ryan | Special to the Times
Historically speaking, older employees have been less impacted by downward unemployment trends than other age groups. Since the early 1940s, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics first started tracking the numbers, employment stability has correlated with age.
Today, that trend continues. The unemployment figure for workers 55 and older in April was 6.5 percent, well below the national number. In fact, it is better than any other age segment, with 25-34 at 9.5 percent, 35-44 at 7.3 percent and 45-54 at 7.1 percent.
Older workers are viewed by potential employers as more reliable, knowledgeable and experienced. Companies have confidence in them and the numbers reflect that.
Still, the relative numbers are small consolation for the millions within our age group who have lost their jobs (and, most likely, their retirement nest eggs, over the last couple of years). The Great Recession was a traumatic event for many, but fewer groups lost as much as older Americans. Homes, long considered a source of net worth, gave up large portions of their value, as did 401(k)s and other retirement savings vehicles. And as politicians debate the fate of Medicare and other "counted on" entitlements, it is no wonder that unemployed older workers are anxious to find meaningful work.
Use your experience
So what's the best way to get back in the game? How can you change your approach to become more appealing to potential employers?
Let's start by examining two of the misperceptions you are up against. As I mentioned earlier, older workers are perceived as more experienced, but some companies (and potential bosses) see them as too expensive compared to less seasoned candidates. Companies may also fear that older workers are too set in their ways—an inflexibility that may come from having done something a certain way all those years.
To overcome these biases, approach the search and interview as if you are making a sale. Build a business case that demonstrates your worth to the company, not your cost. You may command a higher salary than another applicant, but your ramp-up time will be considerably quicker. Your experience should also translate to a level of working knowledge about the targeted industry and the company's key competitors and customer segments.
Experience translates into insight. Express your knowledge in ways that reflect the future growth plans for the company. Then discuss how going with a less knowledgeable employee can stymie growth plans. You are worth more because the alternative candidate carries opportunity costs.
Flexibility is an asset
The interview is actually a great chance to explore a personal fit for someone like you — someone with an outsider's perspective. Ask if the company encourages or rewards new ideas. Will you be perceived as innovative if you bring fresh thinking to the table or as a maverick who is bucking the status quo?
Questions about the company's reward systems may also provide clues. At Madison Performance Group, a workforce engagement and sales incentive marketing firm in New York, we have found that organizations whose leadership overtly rewards new ideas are significantly more likely to encourage new ideas on a regular basis.
This line of questioning will also diffuse any perception that you may be too set in your ways to adapt to a new work style or environment. The reality is this: Anyone in our age group has had a long life of changes.
Prepare anecdotes that illustrate how you have navigated meaningful adjustments in your life. Talk about the importance of being flexible in a fast-moving world.
My advice here is to discuss how you have adopted digital communications and Web-based technologies, and highlight that they are now part of your professional and personal worlds.
Young boss, older worker
Finally, you need to anticipate one more very real dynamic in today's workplace: You may be in line for a job with a boss who is younger than you.
If you find that out during the interview, here is an approach you can take. Start by treating the new manager like a customer. Ask as much as you can about their backstory, what they did before this assignment and what they bring to the table today. Learn what they think they need help with in order to succeed.
This conversation takes diplomacy — on both sides. But when the wiser, more experienced employee positions it as a sincere attempt to bond and partner up, a new working relationship — even a friendship — might very well blossom.
Mike Ryan is senior vice president of marketing and client strategy at Madison Performance Group, a work force engagement and sales incentive marketing firm headquartered in New York. Ryan is president of the Performance Improvement Council (PIC), a board member of the Incentive Marketing Association (IMA) and a trustee of the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF). He holds an MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University.