Why no one over 50 can land a job

EIGHT years ago Carol Brunton, then aged 64, left the job she had had for six years at Waikato Hospital and moved to Napier to look after her mother.

She planned to go back to work when circumstances permitted. Now her mother is living independently but the former lab technician is still out of work, despite an exemplary CV and 114 unsuccessful job applications since she began looking again seven years ago.

"You don't get to the interview stage," says Brunton of her fruitless efforts. "I think they look at your CV and think, 'They couldn't have done a lot of that' or 'How old is she to have done all that?' There's no trouble getting voluntary work. I'm treasurer of Napier Greypower and I've got two weeks' training left to be a CAB interviewer. But to be paid would be very nice."

Brunton ticks all the boxes for maximising work opportunities in later life: she's willing to compromise on hours and pay; she has a neat and tidy CV; she's flexible when it comes to the sort of work she's prepared to do and "I've kept up with technology - social media and email.

"You have to keep up or you get left behind."

Yet she's one of a significant number of people in the over-50 age group who've fallen through "the glass trapdoor" - having left or lost employment, they've found it difficult if not impossible to get back into the workforce.

Not so Brunton's husband: "He's 63. He's a truck driver and he does 70 hours a week. With the pension it's just enough to keep us going, but he won't be retiring at 65."

Some in this age group don't even bother applying for jobs, so pessimistic are they of the chances of success.

Donna la Fauci is 66 and from Tauranga. She had planned to stay in her last job, working as administrator for a charity, until she was 70. Then came a new boss, and a different view of the direction the enterprise should be taking.

"All you're left with is the homecare industry," says La Fauci, who says she "wouldn't bother" applying for jobs, although she has plenty of good experience. "You get to our age and standing on your feet all day isn't what you can do, so retailing is out. I've done a lot of community-type work. [But] I've worked for what used to be the IHC. I've worked for Women's Refuge. I've been self-employed as a shopkeeper."

Obviously, it would be nice for older workers to have jobs, but why should the rest of us care? The economy is why. La Fauci is just one example of someone with a bundle of hard-learnt, essential skills going to waste.

Since 2011 the number of people qualifying for national super, according to a Human Rights Commission report, has been growing by about 450 a week. The working age population - the number of people old enough to enter the workforce - has been growing by about 200 a week.

Simply, the economy needs more people at the starting line working to pay for the people at the finishing line who should no longer have to work.

This labour drought might be on hold until that elusive moment when the economy turns around and becomes desperate for workers, but that means that in the meantime, the market also has a pool of people who have suddenly found themselves in "involuntary unemployment".

Everyone was expecting to be working for longer, so sometimes unexpected job loss can be a huge shock and a huge financial pressure.
Chris Nolan, career counsellor

Whole industries have seen wave after wave of redundancies. Digital and offshore alternatives to traditional local jobs have had a major impact.

"Look at banking, says Paul Tolich, senior national industrial officer of the Engineering Printing and Manufacturing Union, "where there have been incredible changes in technology and the jobs have basically disappeared. A lot of jobs have gone from New Zealand Post. The stuff that was based around the back office and the managerial thing - that's all been cut out. Now they're getting rid of frontline staff and shutting branches. A lot of government offices are trying to stop people going in and having face-to-face meetings."

The effects can be devastating. "When people have worked for a big organisation for 20 to 30 years, they often find it very difficult because it's been an all-encompassing institution that's looked after them well." For many men, in particular, work has formed a large part of their identity. Indeed, for some men, being knocked back for a job because they are deemed too old can be the first time they have experienced being discriminated against.

Many of the older unemployed cite financial factors as a big reason for needing to stay in work. "They may have seen investments depleted in the GFC or still have mortgages to pay off," says Tolich.

It's not just about the money. Other reasons were uncovered in a 2014 White Paper on the ageing workforce prepared for the Human Rights Commission. It found 88 per cent of people planned to "to keep working past 65 and their reasons are varied, including the ability to use their skills and talents, the chance to do a job that is worthwhile, for social contact and for financial reasons."

This was true across the board - for manual work, farming and forestry as well as manufacturing and the service sector - and for small businesses as much as for big ones.

As someone who deals with the fallout from large-scale redundancies, particularly in the media, Tolich's job these days is more about counselling individuals than about banging his fist on boardroom tables.

"I try to make sure people leave on good terms with everyone they've been working with, because it's a such a small society you don't want to fall out with people. For some it's like a bereavement. The union helps them work through the anger and grief, because you've got to or it will just eat away at you."

"A lot of people haven't had a strong retirement plan," says career counsellor Chris Nolan. "Everyone was expecting to be working for longer, so sometimes unexpected job loss can be a huge shock and a huge financial pressure."

You don't have to look far to find management types who will tell you that older people are the absolute best. More than two thirds of 500 businesses surveyed agreed that there's a shortage of highly experienced workers in their industry. Nearly as many were worried about the skills and experience that would walk out the door the day their staff retired.

At least, that's what they say. Because workers who - counselled, whole and at peace with their situation - venture out into the job market with hopeful hearts and age-appropriate clothing are highly likely to encounter age discrimination.

According to the Human Rights Commission's Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner, Jackie Blue, "Forty per cent of workers experienced age-related discrimination over the last five years, commonly manifested in the form of withholding interesting tasks or promotion, and bullying."

The commission receives 60-90 complaints a year along the lines of: "an employer has declined to employ him, saying, 'I thought you were younger. You wouldn't be able to handle it. You're too old', or 'We're looking for young, fresh-out-of-uni types'."

Instances of discrimination are almost certainly under-reported, says Blue.

If you think you've been discriminated against, there is a process to follow.

"People have the option of going directly to the Human Rights Tribunal," says Blue, "but Robert Kee, who is the director, would always say go back and try mediation." An appearance before the tribunal itself is a last resort, and it can take about a year to get there.

For most people, the need to get out and get a job doesn't leave a lot of time or energy for ambling down that road.

As with most forms of discrimination, many widely held beliefs about the minority concerned are untrue. It's widely believed, for instance, that older workers are more expensive. In fact, although people over 65 do earn more than those under 25, they earn less than those aged between 25 and 64.

The belief that older people aren't computer literate doesn't stack up, either, says Bev Cassidy-Mackenzie, chief executive of Diversity Works (formerly the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust), noting that 28 million people over 45 are on Facebook and half of those over 55 have smartphones.

A discriminatory generation gap also opens up when younger people are doing the employing. "It's invisible," says Tolich. "It's like racism. It's in people's subconscious. You can't prove it's happening. But senior people who are young don't like having older people who might be more knowledgeable under them."

What's to be done? Well, all those employers who say they value older workers might like to put their five-year plans where their great big hearts are. Instead, according to a survey of 500 companies taken for the retirements commission this year, 83 per cent had no policies or strategies in place for workers over 50.

ASB-owned financial services company Sovereign employs about 700 people and is among the 17 per cent who actively promote age diversity in their workforce.

"We have diversity champions in the business," says Tansey McLoughlin, acting Chief Officer People and Culture.

"We offer diversity and inclusiveness policies. We do things where people can see diversity is important. We have unconscious bias workshops - we've been working on those for about 18 months."

Everyone needs to face facts.They need to think about whether they fit the brand and environment.
Trish McLean

The company promotes "reverse mentoring ... Mature workers have a huge amount of knowledge and life experience that younger workers don't have. The ability for both to share is great for both sides."

At the next level up, "two of our staff are part of the 55-plus age inclusiveness committee at ASB and they look at specific initiatives as to how we can be inclusive."

Sovereign is also singing the best-practice tune, with policies such as allowing more flexible working hours as people move towards retirement.

If that's what a behemoth such as Sovereign can do to make things better, how much can individual workers do? Plenty.

Trish McLean runs Retailworld Resourcing, specialising in finding jobs for people at all levels of the retail industry.

"We try to make employers open to specialities," says McLean. "With a short list of three we might make it four and say, 'You need to see this person.'"

She advises any older job seekers first to sit back and enjoy a reality check.

"Everyone needs to face facts," says McLean. "They need to think about whether they fit the brand and environment, for a start. Will they be able to relate to colleagues? I can't see my mum working in Glassons, selling fast fashion to 15-year-olds. But a funky grandma would be awesome at Pumpkin Patch."

Don't put your age in your resumé. And don't make it too long - "Go back maybe 10 years and say anything prior is available on request."

Tolich is similarly hard-headed. "I've discovered from dealing with redundancy there's not much point in older people trying to upgrade their skills. They can upgrade to know the basics, but to think they can compete with young ones on social media jobs - it's difficult because employers can get younger people cheaper and they're in touch with all the trends of the under-35s."

He suggests people will improve their chances if they maintain their contact networks, which with a small population like New Zealand's can reach a long way quickly.

Nolan's advice for improving your prospects can be summed up in the motto of that hyper-active octogenarian Clint Eastwood: "Don't let the old man in."

The older people who do better, she says, are those who are "much younger in heart and spirit and more energetic, enthusiastic. The perception of how old you are might be more of a problem [for employers] than your real age."

Nolan says employers value old-timer skills such as strategic thinking and problem solving borne out of previous experience and love it if someone has "established contacts within their industry that might bring new business".

Advice to older workers on the Careers New Zealand website is along the same lines: older people make barriers for themselves if they are unwilling to compromise on hours or salary or the kind of work they will do or where they will do it.

Does much of this advice, in other words, add up to "lie back and lower your expectations"? Maybe. But when you're out of work and in your 50s, you have to start somewhere.

- Canvas

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