Agesim: Over the Hill

More and more older Canadians are contending for jobs in a youth-oriented society that, ironically, we greying boomers created. For the most part these older hands control the levers and feel secure, ensconced in seemingly rock-solid jobs. But what if luckless you finds yourself over the hill in your late 40s, early 50s or worse, dusty CV in hand, looking for a new anchorage in the face of ageism?

Credit: iStock-Ridofranz

More and more older Canadians are contending for jobs in a youth-oriented society that, ironically, we greying boomers created. For the most part these older hands control the levers and feel secure, ensconced in seemingly rock-solid jobs. But what if luckless you finds yourself over the hill in your late 40s, early 50s or worse, dusty CV in hand, looking for a new anchorage in the face of ageism?

I thought I had aced it. Here in the Hong Kong boardroom of a London-based publishing group, awaiting a final interview with the publisher, the job was mine to lose. Vetted by young headhunters, I’d been passed along to the equally young editorial director, Alison. If anything, my obvious age, experience and unflappable (some would call it stolid) attitude had, so I was told, impressed her. The sole remaining candidate was reportedly my “diametric opposite”—much younger, less experienced, female, “bubbly” and not quite Alison’s cup of chai. Seasoned gunfighter versus unknown kid. No problem. Sure, it was likely a mix of wrong dress, wrong personalities and all the nuances of any corporate blind date that led to his decision. But I wonder if what was a plus for Alison—my age and experience—was a detriment to James, the publisher. Or maybe I just came across as a boob.

I’m not alone in my brood. Most baby boomers now fall into the 10-million-strong “experienced workers” category, one-third of the population of Canada and growing. In 1998 about 27 per cent of the labor force was 45 to 65 years old. In 2000 it was 33 percent. By 2011 it will be 38 per cent.

Translation: more and more older Canadians are contending for jobs in a youth-oriented society that, ironically, we greying boomers created. For the most part these older hands control the levers and feel secure, ensconced in seemingly rock-solid jobs. But what if luckless you finds yourself in your late 40s, early 50s or worse, dusty CV in hand, looking for a new anchorage?

Tough luck—you’re OTH: over the hill. . . .

It’s a compelling, disquieting vision beloved by the media: when contending for jobs, older workers invariably lose out to younger, less experienced ones.

Well, the media is an ass. Or so believes Margaret Livingstone, 55, president of Vancouver-based outplacement company Margaret Livingstone & Associates, although she does phrase it much more diplomatically: “My experience with being asked by the media [about age bias] is that my response wasn’t what they were looking for.” In her view journalists tend to simplify this complex subject into neat either/or packages, black-and-white summaries that are biased towards the cliché that young is better than old. Broadly speaking, the cliché simply is wrong, she says.

Demographer, urban futurist, itinerant public speaker, director of the Urban Futures Institute (and someone who, in his words, has never held a real job), David Baxter, 58, says the numbers tell a different story. “The ‘boot-out’ rate for the 45-plus [age group] is low and, if you look at the unemployment rate, the [older worker] rates are the lowest, much lower than young people.”

Shortly after he was laid off, Murray Hall’s phone began to ring. “I thought it was because of my experience, but it was trust. They trusted me, and they wanted help”

In his other “non-charts”—statistics so flat and uninteresting, they’re interesting—there is one noteworthy pattern in the 55-plus group. “It’s the only one that really bounces a lot” in terms of tenure, Baxter says. When times are good, the older types motor along. When times are soft average tenure is pulled down by what he speculates are early buyouts. Another factor to consider: the percentage of older types working part-time has doubled since 1976. Currently, 20 percent of the 55-plus workforce consists of part-time workers. “Why they’re doing this we don’t know,” Baxter admits. “It could be voluntary, it could be involuntary.”

The unemployment numbers show little bias against any age group. When the economy is good employers tend to hire new bodies or keep existing ones, with no preference as to age. When things sour the cutbacks affect everyone, and each industry and company reacts in its specific way. A national coffee shop chain might decide to close outlets, tossing out heaps of young latté slingers. Conversely, that same chain might opt to preserve its revenue stream and economize by removing a few vice-presidents and middlemanagers. For government and big corporations, a combo of culls and early buyouts can be the way to go.

Older workers aren’t necessarily a target. If anything they’re most likely to survive a corporate weeding thanks to their experience, contacts, seniority and knowledge of the system, not to mention that they tend to be in the loop with those who pull the hire/fire levers. Says Baxter: “If you’ve held that job up to age 55, unless it’s a real bad economic time, you generally keep it. Last hired, first fired.”

But if you do get bounced out in your 50s it’s harder to find a permanent desk. Whereas a seasoned rehire in his or her late 30s and 40s has decades of potential to offer a new employer, the time clock is running out for a 50-year-old who has been punched out of the system. Rather than commit to the greybeards, employers view them as short-term contracts, part-timers or consultants, valuable, but with limited shelf life. Then again. . . .

Garth Pinton, partner for executive search firm Pinton Forrest & Madden Group, takes the long view. “The only thing I’ve found over the years is that there is a greater acceptance today of experience over just education and [this acceptance] goes up and down in respect to the economy. When times are tough [companies] are looking to recruit someone who brings instant credibility and hits the ground running, and that comes with age and experience.”

Then again. . . .

For 25 years Murray Hall worked in the fibre supply division of what is now NorskeCanada. The resource company’s name changed over the years, but Hall rode through each merger and acquisition.

Six months before his 49th birthday Hall suffered what he now believes was a stress-related heart attack. In September 2000 he was hit again; NorskeCanada took over Pacifica, but this time around, and along with 80 or so others, Hall was let go. Married, two children still at home, the sole breadwinner. “I didn’t see it coming at all,” Hall says now. “I thought I was absolutely invaluable to this particular company.”

He also knew he and his superior had had ‘personality issues’. Despite Hall’s strong rapport with the wood-fibre mills (and over their objections), the superior had his way. “I didn’t think he’d have the guts to do what he did, which was to basically tell the mills to piss off,” says Hall. “That part was kind of ugly.”

Still the send-off was done with great care, the years of service respected, and Hall was left at age 50 to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. Paradoxically, the heart attack helped strengthen him for something most people would have found soul-destroying.

“[The layoff] was a crisis but not a life crisis. I had learned from the heart attack to ‘re-engineer’ myself,” says Hall. “Without the heart attack, the layoff would have been total devastation because I could just never ever imagine that this company that I had cared for and I thought cared for me would do what it did.” He pauses. “It wasn’t the company. It was individuals.”

Back home in Duncan, B.C., Hall considered his options. He had just completed a degree in financial planning, a field in which he figured his potential contact list and age would be an advantage. “A little steely grey hair, a furrow in the brow. I think that’s what people want to see in a financial planner.” He chuckles. “They don’t want to see some slicked-back kid in a Porsche. They want to see a respectful older-looking gentleman in a Honda Civic.”

[pagebreak] In hindsight it was not the best time to launch a new career advising people how to manage their money: the markets were about to implode. Luckily the phone began to ring; clients and contacts from Hall’s wood fibre career had come calling. “I thought it was because of my experience, but I found out later it was because of trust. They trusted me, they were too busy and they wanted help.”

Today the one-man show called Murray Hall Consulting is as busy as he wants it to be. “It’s just awesome,” continues Hall. “I’m my own boss; nobody is controlling my life but me.”

There are downsides to self-employment – the loss of security, the fear of the unknown – but Hall believes more and more people, like it or not, will be forced to rethink their careers. “The reality is that jobs don’t last forever anymore.” The heart attack plus the layoff also left Hall “just screwed for life insurance. It’s my own fault. I hadn’t covered myself sufficiently, so I’m paying through the nose.” (Happily, as part of his severance, his NorskeCanada/Pacifica benefits package kicks back in when he turns 55.)

The forced rebirth was grim, but Hall says the outcome was worth it. “As I look back on it, I think I found my calling. I don’t know whether I would have done this, had [the layoff] not happened. Once I got over it, the doors opened up.”

Hall’s advice to someone facing the same predicament? “Surround yourself with those who are strong and who know you and can support you so you’re not feeling alone. If you combine that with a good retraining program, you can rebuild your confidence. Then you can start making some intelligent decisions.”

Here, here, says Wendy Francis, program coordinator for the Delta Job Finding Club. Beating up on yourself is counterproductive, especially for older workers and especially for men who tend to identify themselves by their job title and don’t see the other possibilities. “It’s a perception thing on the part of the person who is feeling ‘over-age’ and no good anymore, ready for the scrap heap, that kind of feeling.”

But how do you transfer your job skills into another area? If you can (literally) afford to, take a deep breath and use the down-time to position yourself correctly. Don’t undersell yourself in your panic to find a new job, or any job. In the long run you risk –cheapening your skill set and calling into question your own confidence in your abilities.

In today’s fluid world, the ability to adapt and demonstrate ‘soft’ or ‘people skills’ is as important as hard skills. Personality, good verbal and written communication skills, adaptability, team spirit: these are, according to a recent national study commissioned by Toronto-based Workopolis, what nine out of every 10 human resource professionals surveyed say they want in potential job candidates. Eighty per cent tag technical skills; 78 per cent say a candidate’s ‘fit’ into the corporate culture is vital in the selection process.

Andrew d’Eca, general manager of the Vancouver executive search and recruitment firm Angus One Professional Services, also puts personality fit ahead of hard skills when matching a candidate to a specific work environment. Maturity, he says, can be an advantage if marketed effectively. “They’ve been there, done that and know how to deal with situations in the workplace. The ‘old gunfighter’ [has] the institutionalized memory that younger people don’t have.”

Then again . . . one shouldn’t trust anyone under 30.

Nelson Dewey has been a –working artist with itchy feet for most of his 61 years, doing whatever it takes to keep his large family fed and his artistic skills alive. “I’ve been lucky,” he says. “A lot of the freelance work I’ve done has allowed me to get into areas I might not have had [access to].”

He illustrated comic books for 20 years, spent a year working on the Los Angeles edition of The New York Times and moved north in 1967. After eight years at The Victoria Times-Colonist newspaper, working as an advertising copywriter in a windowless room, being pushed to produce more, faster, Dewey moved on: “If I had stayed I’d be probably making more money than I do [now], but the frustration level was so high. Leaving the job was probably a financial –mistake, but otherwise I don’t regret it. I would have burned out.”

More freelancing was followed by a three-year stint at Victoria-based computer game company Sanctuary Woods. When Sanctuary Woods withered away, the 59-year-old Dewey got the siren call of security from game software giant Electronic Arts in Vancouver. He cut loose most of his freelance clients and headed across the Strait. Although his age was likely seen by some as a handicap in such a youth-oriented industry as computer games, Dewey says there were “enough people [at EA] open-minded enough to see the value of experience. So I got in that way.”

One year later Dewey was laid off. The parting was amicable, the severance decent, but it did hurt and it did leave questions: “Electronic Arts, I thought, was going to be my final kick at the can,” Dewey says. “I’m not really sure why I was laid off, but I have a feeling it was age-related. And salary – they could probably hire some young guys out of school, two of them, for what they were paying me.”

The job loss meant a year of employment insurance, “hating it and fighting it,” especially as the EI system can’t fathom the concept of ‘freelance income’ into its fixed equation. Via his connections Dewey then landed a contract job on the Scary Movie set, entered the precarious Vancouver film industry and has carried on from there.

Life is far from secure, but he’s used to it. “My advice is to be flexible and prepare as well as you can. I think my experience being self-employed certainly helped me and my –family to cope. We know of people who have kind of coasted through their lives in one career, retired and had no stumbles or anything. I just wonder how they would possibly cope if something did happen to them.”

As the economy changes and career jobs fade, Dewey believes government attitudes must change vis-à-vis part-time jobs, career changes and freelance income. “We are these weird little cogs that don’t fit in the machinery. You just get the feeling that there are far more of these little cogs out there than the machine is willing to recognize.” Dewey has since re-submitted his resumé to Electronic Arts. A new department is opening, one that Dewey says he’d fit into “quite well, I think.”

Employers who typically go for a younger profile think younger candidates have more energy. “That’s not necessarily true,” says Andrew d’Eca. “You can find more mature candidates with the same level of energy, if not more.” Conversely, older candidates who slink in with a ‘defeatist attitude’ have hamstrung themselves. “They need to build on their experience and go in with a clear, positive, optimistic mindset that they are the best candidate for the position based on their experience and energy.”

“I’m old enough to remember when it was often said, ‘She didn’t get the job because she’s a woman,'” adds Margaret Livingstone. “Well, first of all, there’s nothing you can do about that before noon-hour tomorrow. It’s the same thing about age. You can’t fix it. If you’re going to use that as a crutch, the same as women who used [gender] back then—because there were plenty who did—then that will be your crutch.”

Your goal is to get past the stack of contending resumés, score the crucial face-to-face meeting and charm the employer with your skills and personality. But do it honestly.

“I was told when I was doing my PhD, that if you’re 40, especially as a woman, you’re washed up. What am I supposed to tell grad students—‘Don’t bother’?”—Blanca Schorcht

“Do what you have to do to get in the door,” advises Wendy Francis. “However, don’t lie. That’s something we tell people over and over again. Never gloss things up to the effect that it’s a lie.” Yes, the resume or CV can be adjusted for optimum presentation and certain “tells,” such as dates omitted (in any case, it’s illegal for any employer to ask for your age, martial status and other personal information), but it must be honest and solid, the references unquestionable . . . assuming the employer checks them. (It’s scary how few actually do, or do it properly or make that quiet phone call to get the real skinny under the glowing reference letter.)

Presentation is vital. If you’re a woman and it means tinting your hair, then Francis says “do whatever you can to make yourself look young and fit.” New dress, makeup, whatever. “Pull it up a notch.” But if you’re a guy, d’Eca says think twice about that dye job. What’s acceptable for a woman is questionable for a man, and when that youthful color fades, you risk coming across as pathetic at best, a latent con man at worst. “Nobody wants any surprises down the road,” says d’Eca.

Agreed, says Francis. “Employers have a wish list these days and can ask for the moon and the stars, especially here in B.C. because the employment situation isn’t overloaded with opportunities.”

It’s a fallacy that older people can’t learn new tricks or new technology, says David Baxter. Sure, they might need brighter lights to see the keyboard or they might take a bit longer to puzzle through an unfamiliar software program, but given the chance and willingness to learn, most older types can handle new office skills. The kicker is whether or not they can handle the social changes. Can you fit into a multicultural workplace? Can you not be a chauvinist? “When you get old,” says Baxter, “your intelligence doesn’t disappear, but the issue of adaptability does enter into it.”

If you don’t have a degree (and many older types don’t), then play the experience card or what Francis calls the sandwich technique—real-world knowledge can often match what’s learned in theory and then some. Don’t belabor the point, but what’s learned in university or college is basically theory, whereas you know what’s practical. Don’t let your skill sets slide; keep ‘current’ in terms of computer, internet and other hard – and quite necessary—modern skills. Coupled with measured enthusiasm and –interest, it will help make up for that missing sheepskin.

Not that academia itself necessarily values degrees and enthusiasm when hiring its own. . .

Resume under her arm, Blanca Schorcht, 46, found herself picking through the icy slush of a Halifax university parking lot in a full suit and heels, heading for yet—another out-of-province interview, yet another hiring committee, a committee whose members are invariably casually dressed. Near the end of the three-day interview process, she changed her footwear to comfortable flats. Now back in Vancouver, she wonders whether it was the smart thing to do. “I don’t know if that’s going to be a factor in not getting the jobs,” she laughs resignedly. “After a while, you start to get paranoid.”

If you have tenure at a university, looks are secondary. However, if you’re one of an increasing number of ‘sessionals’ or limited-term hires such as Schorcht – low-paid university teachers and lecturers who work from contract to contract sans benefits, pension plan or stability – the dream of finally landing one of the increasingly few new tenure positions out there keeps you chasing the carrot – sometimes in high heels.

In March alone Schorcht was short-listed and flown out to contend for tenure positions in Manitoba, Alberta and Nova Scotia. When BCBusiness spoke to her, she was waiting for the yea or nay from all three universities.

It’s not as if she doesn’t have the chops. She won a prestigious Social Science, Humanities Research Council of Canada scholarship, earned a PhD in comparative literature and is now a post-doctoral Fellow with a book to her credit, seven academic capers, “a slew of book reviews and odds and ends I don’t keep track of,” exemplary teaching evaluations and experience in facilitating academic workshops and speakers’ series. She also thinks that, realistically, she’s “hooped” when it comes to landing a tenure job, at least here in the Lower Mainland.

As bastions of higher learning, universities supposedly value wisdom and experience. It’s just her opinion, but at SFU and UBC Schorcht believes the reality is quite different, especially for academics who did things in reverse. Rather than move directly from high school into university and so on, she stayed home, had children and then, at the age of 28, returned to university, taught, had a few breaks in between, won her PhD when she was 42—and has been fighting an ivy-covered double-whammy ever since.

Sessionals are dogsbodies. They work long hours for relatively low pay ($28,000 to $35,000 per annum versus $50,000-plus for an assistant professor on the first rung of the tenure ladder), no job security and little time for the research required to maintain a crucial publishing output. (In academia, it’s publish or perish.) Adding to the gall, quite often the sessional and that assistant prof will have “very, very, very similar qualifications, if not identical,” Schorcht points out.

First problem: elitism. Although it’s difficult to prove without some sort of national study being done, Schorcht believes that once you’ve taken a sessional position for more than a couple of years, you’re tagged as not being an academic ‘blueblood’ but an academic peasant, no matter what your credentials.

Although hiring committees are supposed to be unbiased, decisions are often swayed by one or two heavyweights and who cares about labor codes and the Charter of Human Rights? Schorcht sighs, “I think that sometimes university departments that are invoking academic freedom and autonomy think they are above the law and they certainly don’t think about ethics.”

Second whammy: an unspoken preference in Canadian universities for hiring young academics, especially Americans, to inject new blood into the system. Or depending on how cynical you are, you might suggest that older, tenured faculty heads are hiring the young to groom them to bask in their august presence. Recalls Schorcht: “I was told, way back when I was doing my PhD, that if you’re 40, especially as a woman, you’re washed up. ‘Don’t even try for a tenure position.’ That makes it a little difficult when I’m teaching graduate students, mature students. What do I say to them? ‘Don’t bother’?”

Insult to injury, but the last tenure position she vied for locally was won by a young woman in her early 30s who, says Schorcht, hadn’t yet graduated and who, when questioned by the hiring committee, quoted Schorcht in her answers. (In June, Schorcht was offered, and accepted, the position of regional chair for the University of Northern British Columbia.)

Back in the real world. . . Young people expect change; many older ones can’t handle it. “Most people of our age, if you tell them their office cubicle is going to be shifted, they get grumpy,” says Baxter. “Young people expect changes. They don’t carry this baggage of ‘I’ve always been a ‘something’. They’re not inhibited by becoming something else.”

In an opinion shared by everyone interviewed by BCB, Margaret Livingstone does believe age can be an advantage, albeit with ‘ifs’ and qualifiers: “If they position themselves appropriately and if they’re ‘current’ technologically and in terms of management practices and the way of the world . . . If they are ‘older going on younger’ in their minds and attitude and spirit and soul . . . There is a big difference between a 55-year-old that’s going on 68, and a 55-year-old going on 48.”

Me? I’m eyeing that lightweight Hong Kong suit. . .

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