Over 50 and job hunting? Here’s some encouraging news

July 18, 2012, 5:27 PM UTC

FORTUNE — We’re all familiar with the stereotype: Job seekers in their 50s almost always get shunted aside in favor of young (and believed to be more tech-savvy) go-getters in their 20s and 30s, right?

Well, as it turns out, not so much. When Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas set out to analyze government employment data by age group, going back to January 2010, researchers made an interesting discovery. Of the 4,319,000 jobs created in the U.S. over the past two-and-a-half years, about 70% (2,998,000 jobs) went to people aged 55 or older.

Overall unemployment for this group fell from 7.1% in May 2010 to a current level of 6.5% — well below the 8.2% rate for the workforce as a whole, and far lower than the 10.2% unemployment rate for workers between the ages of 20 and 34 in the same time period.

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And that’s not all. “One myth is that older workers are finding only low-paying jobs in retail or other service-oriented industries,” notes CEO John Challenger. But few of the recently hired are Wal-Mart greeters, he says: “Some of the biggest employment gains for those 55 and up have occurred among managers and professionals.”

In May of this year, 6,274,000 people over 55 were employed in management and financial operations — a 12% increase from 5,581,000 in May 2010. The number working in professional occupations (lawyers, accountants, and the like) has also risen by 10% in the past two years.

Why is that? “There’s no question that age bias can still sometimes be an issue for older managers, but it’s becoming less and less so,” observes Mark Anderson, president of ExecuNet, an online career network for $100,000-per-year-plus executives. The organization just published a new career guide for job hunters over 50.

“Recruiters are telling us that the skills they’re seeking now increasingly relate to experience and judgment — traits that are most often found in people who have been managing for a long time, through all kinds of market upheavals and economic ups and downs,” Anderson says.

ExecuNet conducts an annual survey of headhunters which asks, among other things, at what age recruiters start seeing a candidate as harder to place because of the number of candles on his or her birthday cake. In 2004, that age was 51.2. It’s been rising a little every year since then, to 57 in 2012.

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Anderson says that employers still sometimes request, off the record, that recruiters focus on younger candidates: “That’s why it’s important to bypass recruiters and approach employers through the network of professional contacts you’ve accumulated over the years.The direct approach also means you have less competition.”

A common bête noire for people with long experience is the O-word, for “overqualified,” he acknowledges. “In interviews, you can often get around that by talking about what challenges you’ve faced and how you dealt with them successfully. Tell how you see that experience working for them if they hire you,” Anderson notes. “Present yourself, not as a person in search of a job, but as a solution in search of a problem.”