Over 55 and unemployed? Finally a bit of good news

December 8, 2010, 3:30 PM UTC

The November unemployment rate for people 55 and older is lower than for any younger age group, welcome news for a group that often worries about being shut out of jobs by age bias.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

Scratch the surface of November’s disappointing unemployment statistics, and you find yet more evidence that, while joblessness plagues almost every stratum of society, not everyone is affected in quite the same way.

With unemployment hovering around 5% for people with college degrees, about half the rate for the population as a whole, education is clearly a big factor.

Age is another. Consider: The November unemployment rate for people 55 and older, at 7.3%, is lower than for any younger age group. About 276,000 more Americans under 55 reported being out of work in November than in October. Yet during that same month, employers added 123,000 age-55-and-over workers to their payrolls.

What’s more, the number of “discouraged workers” — unemployed people who have given up looking for jobs — who are 55 or older fell by an eye-catching 16% in November, from 335,000 to 280,000. This means that “people are starting to see opportunities, and they believe it’s time to get back in the game,” says Deborah Russell, director of workforce issues at AARP.

That’s all welcome news for a group that often worries about being shut out of jobs by age bias, or by what some call “the O word” (for “overqualified”).

Still, Russell points out, not all the numbers are cause for celebration. The average job hunter over 55, for instance, is still out of work for about 45 weeks, or three white-knuckle months longer than the average for those under 55.

Older people may take longer to find work for a variety of reasons, says Jason Levin, a senior account executive at career site Vault.com. “Bear in mind that these tend to be more experienced and more sophisticated candidates” than their wet-behind-the-ears counterparts, he notes, so “negotiations over salary and benefits may take longer. They may also have more savings to rely on while they look for exactly the right opportunity.”

Levin, for one, isn’t surprised that overall employment is rising for this group. “Companies that cut way back all through the recession are starting to realize that they need highly qualified people to get the work done,” he observes. “Older managers understand nuance and hierarchies. They have accumulated a lot of wisdom, and they know how to run projects.” He adds: “Experience matters. It will always matter.”

Maybe so, but the AARP’s Russell says that, in and of itself, long experience isn’t enough. “People 55 and older belong to a generation that was raised not to ‘blow your own horn,’” she says. “So a lot of the career counseling that we do is centered on showing people how to promote themselves and create a personal brand that will help them stand out.”

To help the 47% of its 38 million members who are either working or looking for work, AARP has built an array of online resources, including a new job-search portal with 1.3 million job listings.

Russell and Levin agree on at least one thing: Chemistry counts. “The person who gets hired, at any age, is the one who makes an individual connection with a potential employer, and who understands how to bring value,” says Levin. “I know 28-year-olds who are good at this. I know 58-year-olds who are good at it, too.”

One subtle advantage that more mature job seekers have, adds Levin: “They know how to craft a well-thought-out handwritten note. At this time of year, that means holiday cards with actual stamps on them. If you want to make an impression, that’s worth 100 emails. The personal touch never gets old.”