September 2001

The New Definition of "Older"and the
New Dilemmas in the Workplace for the Older Worker


Jane M. Lommel, Ph.D.

President of Workforce Associates

and author of

NetWork: Maximizing Your Career Resources on the Internet

Available online and in print from 1st Books Library

There’s a new report out by Stephen Richardson, a California social psychologist, which describes the end of modern adolescence at the age of 35 -- not the traditional 19 or at the end of college at 22 or at the age of 25 when we endured the first miserable experience in the world of work. This brings out an interesting question as to the definitions of "older" in the workplace and whether you're vulnerable to age discrimination or envied because you can now file age discrimination suits.

Although Richardson takes the enlightened view that adulthood begins at 35, employers are not convinced. In a sharp reversal of a long downward trend, the number of age-discrimination complaints has jumped dramatically in the past 18 months, the Chicago Tribune reported recently. The newspaper said the sudden change reflects corporate America's determination to cut costs by weeding out many of its highest-paid workers. Last year, 16,000 people filed age-discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, up 2,000 from the year before. It was also the highest number since 1995. And the surge continued into the first part of this year. Complaints for the first six months of fiscal 2001 are up 15 percent from the same period last year.

Experts tell the Tribune that the numbers prove a harsh new reality: As the economy slows, older workers are feeling more than their share of the pain. Perceived as less productive than younger employees and earning relatively high salaries, these workers are often targeted for termination or denied promotion, advocates tell the newspaper. Rightly or wrongly, they think that gray hair and experience mean that 50-plusers are reluctant to try new ways of doing their work or to tackle the relentless stream of new technology. In other words, "older" means the proverbial old dogs, unwilling or unable to learn new tricks that will help employers deal with the hurly burly of the modern workplace that is cutthroat and unforgiving.

To give you an example of what employers are thinking, here are the results of the AARP/SHRM study regarding attitudes toward older workers. This joint study was conducted by AARP and the Society for Human Resource Management in 1998 with 400 major employers in all fields across the USA:

Older Workers vs. Younger Workers
Statement Total Agree Strongly Agree Agree Undecided Disagree Strongly Disagree Total Disagree
Older workers tend to be more reliable than younger workers. 77% 33% 44% 16% 6% 1% 7%
Older workers tend to be more fearful of technology than younger workers. 66% 12% 54% 15% 18% 1% 19%
Older workers tend to have a higher level of commitment to the organization 77% 27% 50% 18% 5% ** 5%
Older workers tend to stifle creativity in the organization with old school ideas. 17% 2% 15% 32% 46% 4% 50%
Older workers tend to be more motivated to do their work than younger workers. 40% 7% 33% 37% 21% 1% 22%
Older workers have a harder time grasping new concepts than younger workers. 18% 1% 17% 32% 47% 2% 49%
Older workers tend to have better overall work skills than younger workers. 36% 6% 30% 33% 31% 0% 31%
Older workers tend to have higher rates of absenteeism than younger workers. 2% ** 2% 8% 68% 21% 89%
Older workers tend to be less flexible than younger workers. 23% 1% 22% 29% 45% 3% 48%
Older workers tend to take longer to train than younger workers. 14% 1% 13% 30% 53% 4% 57%
Older workers tend to be more costly to train than younger workers. 6% ** 6% 26% 63% 5% 68%
Older workers tend to be less likely to keep up with new developments 20% 1% 19% 32% 45% 3% 48%
Younger managers tend to be uncomfortable supervising older workers. 27% 3% 24% 27% 44% 1% 45%
Older workers tend to be uncomfortable reporting to younger workers. 23% 2% 21% 31% 44% 2% 46%

As these results suggest, employers generally perceive that older workers excel or perform as well their younger counterparts on a number of work-related measures. For example, 89% of those surveyed strongly disagreed that older workers -- defined as people 50 and older-- tend to have higher rates of absenteeism than younger workers. Seventy-seven agreed that older workers tend to be more reliable and have higher levels of commitment to the organization than younger workers. Forty percent said they agreed that older workers tend to be more motivated to do their work than younger workers.

However, the respondents were generally indifferent about the overall work skill levels of older workers. Thirty-six percent agreed with the statement that older workers have better overall work skills than younger workers and 31 percent disagreed with the statement. This is a red flag to the 50+ employees who have let their job skills become rusty by not taking new courses, letting their memberships in professional associations lapse, and/or not keeping up with the literature in the field.

The most notable older worker challenge, according to participants, is overcoming technology fears. Sixty-six percent of the respondents agreed that older workers tend to be more fearful of technology than younger workers.

Your Strategies for Success as a 50+ Job Seeker:

Well, you can’t change your birth certificate. And even if you could, your mother would never lie about your age . . . so what can you realistically do to keep your employability a positive and successful experience? Here are some suggestions and websites to help you out:

Fifty isn't as old as it used to be. The average American today is living 29 years longer than the average American did at the turn of the last century but those years are being tacked on to middle age -- not old age. People today are in better health and are planning to work longer. They have a whole career in front of them.

Questions to ask yourself:

1. How many more years you want to work? If it's only five years, you can try to stay in your current field, perhaps with a smaller company. But if you want to work for 20 more years, as many people do, develop a plan that you find exciting. Include in that plan a regular regimen to keep up your skills and actively participate in professional associations.

2. Decide how you want to live those years and what you must do to get there. Develop a vision for the next five years, fifteen years, and so on. Your fifties may be different from your sixties, which may be different from your seventies. But you can engage your brain for many years to come. For many people, this is an opportunity to work non-traditional hours by becoming a free agent and also to capitalize on all the experiences they've accumulated.

Actions to take on the job or in an interview:

Update your appearance. Take off a few pounds. But be careful not to do anything unnatural or so radical that says you aren't comfortable with who you now are.

Show energy and enthusiasm. Talk about your skiing holidays or hang-gliding (just kidding). You have to keep your energy level up while talking to recruiters and interviewers. Fast talkers win. Think in Internet speed. Long pauses may very well undermine your presentation and eliminate you from consideration. Be willing to pitch in: don't see anything as beneath you. Maturity and experience count. Many companies staffed with kids still want a few gray heads around to call on the big corporate clients and to help the company avoid big mistakes. "I hope you want a mature person, i.e., someone who's been around the block..."

Don't confuse age prejudice with salary prejudice. If people don't want you because you cost too much, then don't say that it's because you're too old. Meritocracy is the order of the day. It’s no longer a matter of how long you’ve been showing up on time.

Address the salary issue. Find someone who is willing to pay you what you are worth. Look to those companies that have fewer than 1,000 employees. They need people who can hit the ground running. Make sure that you thoroughly understand the possibilities of what the Internet and technology mean for your current and potential employer. You’ll quickly be perceived as a strategic player who can add value to your employer now and in the near future – until the technology changes again! – which you need to be continually on top of.

Learn how to market yourself. Older people are often used to being in one place for many years. They work hard but don't know how to promote themselves to the world. Work on opportunities to speak at a conference or become quoted in an article that appears on the Internet or update your bio on your company's Web site.

Pick up new skills. Everyone else has to. Why should you be different? Don't say: I'll learn it after they hire me. Learn it now. Keep up-to-date. Things are changing. One 40+ executive took a course in keyboarding and using PowerPoint; another learned fundraising and not-for-profit management. Consider part-time or temporary assignments or volunteer work to learn new skills. If you want to work in the New Economy, you have to prove you belong there, and nothing says more about your qualifications than your computer skills. Some 50+ find young graduates who can teach them about computers and whom they give the benefit of their experience in the workplace. It’s a win-win situation. Make sure your resume and the way you send it reflect your computer skills. You need to show that you’re wired to the Internet and comfortable using email. It also indicates that you understand that recruiters need resumes that are in data form so they can search the text.

Challenge yourself even though you don't feel you should have to. Recent grads and older workers both think that they have already proven themselves -- but they are both badly out of sync with today’s fast paced, highly competitive market. Today, job searching requires a more proactive approach. Don't use your age as an excuse for not being hired. Maybe the problem is something else. Try to figure out what it is. At The Five O’clock Club, people over 50 who work the system are finding good work in the same amount of time as those who are under 50.

Here are some online resources to help you:

Career Action Center is one of the venerable career counseling centers around the country. Located in Silicon Valley, it offers tons of information for workers of all ages, especially older workers.

Five O'clock Club: America's Premier Career Counseling Network specializes in helping older workers with up-to-date outplacement services.

Forty Plus chapters are scattered around the country to help 40+ college educated professionals network with one another to find better jobs or make successful career transitions.

The National Operation ABLE Network is composed of agencies across the United States that focus on meeting the needs of mid-career and older workers and job seekers. ABLE stands for Ability Based on Long Experience. This Network was started in Chicago and now can be found in many major cities across the US.

Too Young to Retire provides ideas for the over 50 set to chart new directions in the workplace and in their personal lives.

50 And Overboard is a relatively new online job search engine geared specifically toward people 50 years of age and older. Let me know what you think of it.

Chief Monster, which is part of, helps executives learn about trends in the 21st century workplace. There have been several articles about hiring practices and tips for those over 50. Free membership for those who qualify.

In conclusion, these resources are meant to help you position yourself effectively as an older worker in your job search and in job interviews. You should keep yourself VERY well informed about your chosen field and not let your skills and networks with others in your field lapse. You should also be in a good position to keep yourself marketable and upwardly mobile once you are employed. Turn to these sites regularly so that they become your regular online "friends" throughout your careers.

Feel free to contact me re questions or comments about other sites that you learn about for the 50+ job seeker. I can be reached at

Next month we’ll focus on self-assessment tools that are online. Happy September!


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