When Kim Brown lost her accounting position last spring, she was devastated. She had worked with the same firm for 12 years, only to lose her job during a company reorganization.
Although she was confident something would come up, given her vast and varied experience in the accounting field, she admits she wasn't thrilled with the idea of looking for work at age 70.
"You really have to have computer skills of some sort. I guess the more you have, the better you are, but it might be difficult for an older person to get into a high-tech company," Brown says. "I've done everything in my lifetime in accounting, so I figured I didn't have real technical experience. Some, but not full blast."
After spending a few weeks catching her breath, she headed to the Area 4 Agency on Aging. She met with a job developer and left with some job announcements and contacts. Surprisingly, the first interview request came from the Agency itself. Seems they needed an account technician.
"The senior accountant overheard us talking and spoke to [the job developer]. And they called me right back."
That was August. Since then, Brown has expanded her software knowledge and applications and looks to more challenges. Though she says she "wasn't desperate," she knew her options were somewhat limited given her wish for part-time employment and the stigma of being an older worker. But she was willing to learn, even change fields, if necessary.
And that's what counts, says Ron Clyma, a senior job developer with the Area 4 Agency on Aging, which helps people age 60+ find employment. Pounding the pavement for a job can be a daunting prospect at any time, but being flexible when changing careers or seeking work after age 55 can help fight those prejudices about old dogs and new tricks, according to Clyma.
"Many people will have to cross-train, take a lower salary when they retire, even consider themselves entry-level even though they have had more responsible positions previously," Clyma points out. "We often get people who bring in resumes that are breathtaking and we have to say, 'you're not going to be able to command these types of salaries.' People making these shifts need to be flexible."
Despite current economic uncertainty and downsizing across many industries, the market for older workers remains viable. Recent data from the US Special Committee on Aging predicts the 65+ population will grow 90 percent in the next 30 years, while the workforce will grow 15 percent. "It means they're going to try and fill those jobs," Clyma notes, "and there's only one place to look for those folks."
With the corporate mindset shifting from employee-oriented to budget-minded, the labor pool also is evolving. Clyma says youthful executives are much more willing to move between companies and between states than in previous decades. And with that transience comes opportunity for older workers either seeking to keep working until retirement or who wish to supplement their benefits.
Employers are starting to see the value of older workers who might be less likely to make quick changes in their lives. Pregnancy isn't often an issue, nor is returning to academia for an advanced degree, nor is a spur-of-the-moment move because a girlfriend took a job in New York.
Computer skills remain a big issue. Candidates "are looked at as dinosaurs if they don't have the basic skills," Clyma says. The Agency on Aging assists jobseekers with resume writing, interview techniques and directs them to training programs, such as Extension, ROP, Sacramento Works and Sacramento Professional Network, where candidates can develop computer skills using standard programs like Excel and MS Word.
The key is packaging and presenting new information in a way that is appropriate for older learners, says Barbara Gillogly, director of the Gerontology Center at American River College. "The idea that you can't teach an old dog new tricks is a misnomer. When you're young, you learn the concept first, then the pieces. When you are older, you learn the pieces first, then the concept. You learn more slowly and in a different way."
Gillogly believes much of the stigma about older workers stems from the American work ethic. "Our country was settled by young, vigorous people. It wasn't seniors," Gillogly says. "As a result, our basic cultural value is to produce, and your self-worth is based on what you produce."
A Career With Class
Some people return to the classroom when seeking a career change. Sharon Harper had worked for 15 years in the real estate and construction fields when she decided to return to school to earn a California teaching credential at the age of 54.
"I'd always wanted to teach. It was part of the graduate program in New York," Harper explains. "I kind of decided that if I was going to do it, I'd better just do it." She enrolled in National University, taking courses at night while working full-time for Infinity Construction. She says she found her age both an advantage and disadvantage while a student.
"I don't think you pick up things as quickly, but once you do, you're able to add other experience you've had on the job," she notes. "My concerns were the learning factor and being hired in your 50s. It's a whole different thing. I didn't see a lot of people my age doing this."
Harper already had earned a master's degree in fine arts, so when it came time to interview for positions, she had a range of skills and knowledge to offer school districts. And while it didn't appear that school districts were looking more at her birth date than her credentials, she did feel some apprehension.
"I've never had a problem with age. In fact, that was one of the reasons I've been told that people have hired me - they wanted maturity, someone who could get a handle on the situation," Harper recalls. "My concern was when I changed fields - how would I do on the job market? But that wasn't based on any experiences."
Job offers came quickly. Three in fact. Now in her fourth year of teaching full-time in the San Juan Unified School District, Harper recently accepted a new role. Instead of teaching fifth or sixth grade, she is now a full-time art instructor, teaching at both Fair Oaks and Sierra Oaks schools.
"It's a dream job!" she exclaims.
While many fields, such as the high-tech industry, aren't viewed as being friendly to older workers, the academic world may be a bit more approachable. Maturity and life experience often become assets when teaching young minds, says Harper. And, many teachers work into their 50s and 60s. At age 58, she has no plans for retiring any time soon.
"Fifty-eight is not that far from 60, and that freaks me out a little. But I wanted a full-time job - I wanted the security," she declares. "And I plan on working a long time."