Age-defying job hunts

Goldie Hawn is not known for her sage wisdom, so it might seem strange that a quote from her would makes its way into an article on the serious subject of ageism in the workplace. Hawn, however, was born in 1945, which makes her older than Kenneth Starr, Newt Gingrich, Steve Forbes and both Bill and Hillary. She must have learned something.

When Hawn was filming "The First Wives Club" in 1995, she reflected on turning 50. "There is an insane amount of ageism in Hollywood," she said in an interview. "And it scares the hell out of me." Her character, Elise, explained it even better. "There are three stages in an actress' career: the babe, district attorney, and "Driving Miss Daisy.'"

Admittedly, Hawn is in the most youth-obsessed profession of all time. Unfortunately, however, the rest of the world is also preoccupied with the apparent energy, enthusiasm and motivation of youth. Companies clamor over each other to attend the hot college-recruitment days. Some companies actually set up booths during spring break to talk to partyers about their postgraduate plans. Everyone wants young, attractive employees.

While Hawn has the benefit of personal assistants, trainers and (allegedly) the best plastic surgeon in history, the rest of us have only ourselves to count on. Those who are over 40 can't suddenly appear significantly younger when trying to get the best jobs. And surely there is more to landing a good job than looking 10 years younger than you are.

W. C. Fields once said, "I'd rather have two girls at 21 each than one girl at 42." This statement, while politically incorrect, sums up the feelings of many hiring professionals at large corporations. They'd rather hire two 20-something employees for $35,000 each than one 45-year-old at $75,000.

There are pervasive stereotypes of all the age groups. Twenty-somethings are considered ambitious; 30-somethings are ambitious and seasoned. Forty-somethings are seasoned and critical; 50-somethings are critical and burned out. Sixty-somethings -- well, they're just old.

Obviously, if you're a 60-something who has read this far, you don't feel old at all. You just need a chance to convey this attitude to a prospective employer. How can you, though, when they take one look at your resume and figure out how old you are? Professional resume writers have tricks of the trade to shave 10 or 15 years off your age.

First of all, if you graduated from college before 1980, the graduation date is left off your resume. Does it really matter if you got your degree in 1977 or 1992? What matters is that you completed the degree, something less than 25 percent of all Floridians have done.

Jobs you had before 1980 are also irrelevant. Unless you were a high-ranking official in a presidential administration, the jobs are too obscure and dated to be of much help to you. Besides, a prospective employer often cannot check references from 20 years ago. Your old boss has probably retired or died by now, which can be good or bad, depending on your point of view.

Most importantly, you should never put your date of birth on a resume. Thirty years ago, all resumes had personal information on them, including age, marital status and health. Today, it's illegal for an employer to ask these questions, so why would you voluntarily print them on a resume?

The subject of ageism is relatively new. No one expected Ward Cleaver or Ozzie Nelson to lose their jobs, no matter what happened, because things were stable back in the 1950s and 1960s. Seniority was an asset, not a liability.

Job stability has become a thing of the past. My grandfather had the same job for 43 years in a printing factory. It wasn't a great job, but it paid the bills and gave him a handsome retirement. My father taught school in the New York school system for more than 30 years. He retired with a great pension and today is enjoying the good life in his beach condo. Neither of them can believe how many jobs I have gone through since I graduated from college just six years ago.

Today, the average college graduate can expect to have seven jobs between graduation and death. For each job, he or she will have to type up a resume, put on a conservative suit and impress the socks off of a human resources director. Because companies tend to base their hiring decisions on potential, not experience, a young applicant has a good chance of edging out older, more experienced competitors.

In today's insecure job market, it is not uncommon for a company to lay off its older employees for purely economic motives. Retirement benefits are expensive, and the company receives nothing in return for the money it spends on these benefits. "You wouldn't believe how much we spend on retirement benefits," explains Ken Roman, human resources director of Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. "And it's an ongoing expenditure that lasts until the employee dies. Today, people can live to be over 100. That's 40 years of retirement benefits, which can be longer than the person worked for us."

Many companies have sharply reduced their retirement benefits. To supplement pensions, many retirees must return to work. In the past week, I have seen 70-somethings passing out samples in the grocery store, greeting me at Wal-Mart and even cleaning up my table at a fast-food restaurant. My guess is that these employees are capable of doing much more.

"It's humiliating," explains Stephen Luckinbill, a 62-year-old clerk at a local liquor store. "I can't afford to live off the pension that I earned in 40 years working for the state of Michigan. I had a good job with the Department of Parks and Services, but now I'm working for $7.25 per hour."

Luckinbill has been "retired" for seven years. "If you're a male between 55 and 65," he says, "you have a problem getting any job. If you want to get back into the field you have retired from, there are 100 younger applicants competing with you. At 55, I was forced into early retirement, but I had 10 years before I could comfortably retire. Worse yet, Social Security may not even exist when I'm 80 and really need it."

Goldie Hawn's three-stage quote about an actress' career is actually very perceptive. In today's business arena, there are also three stages: the recent graduate, the recent graduate's boss, and "So long, Elmer, enjoy your retirement." Unfortunately, not everybody grows up to be the boss. Some find themselves suddenly unemployed and accumulating long lists of rejection notices from other companies. These are the ones who ageism hurts the most.

Luckinbill went on dozens of interviews before getting an offer from the liquor store. Often in these situations, he says, "I could tell I wasn't going to get the job from the minute I walked into the office. I can see the shock on the HR director's face when he sees my gray hair and bald spot. After the façade of an interview, the employer would say, ‘We'll let you know.' Most of the time, he didn't."

Luckinbill, with a bachelor's degree in public administration, feels wasted in his job. "Of course I'm thankful for the job," he explains, "and I don't mean to take anything away from other cashiers. But this is not what I was trained to do. While a younger man can work his way into management, I can't imagine managing this liquor store when I'm 70."

The worst indignation for Luckinbill came when he applied to wait tables at a restaurant. "The manager looked me in the eye and told me that the job may be too hectic for someone like me. Of course he didn't say ‘someone your age,' but he meant it. And what am I going to do? Sue him? It's my word against his, and I truly was not qualified for the position."

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Chances are, most of the people reading this column are employed, though not necessarily happily. Some are recently unemployed, and some have been looking for a position for months. No matter what the situation, there are always precautions to take to prevent you from being hopelessly unemployed or underemployed.

• Learn about computers. Today's business world relies completely on computers. Take a class and practice using the computers. Without computer knowledge, you are as antiquated as an old manual typewriter. Sure, it's nice to look at and admire its craftsmanship, but you can't complete your work quickly with it.

• Be open to any suggestions. It's annoying to give advice and get an answer that starts with "Yes, but. ..." Believe it or not, you can learn something from people much younger than you. No one wants to hire someone with the fatherly chip on his shoulder. Truthfully, the boss doesn't care that in the '50s, you did it without computers. He just wants to know that you will be able to complete the work in the '90s.

• Dress in today's fashions. It's amazing how many people go on job interviews with clothes they bought 20 years ago. Sure, the suit was nice then, but styles have changed. If you can't dress in today's fashions, how will you understand today's technologies?

• Understand your worth, but don't be too impressed with it. If you made a six-figure salary last year, you have every right to try to find a job that has comparable compensation. Be prepared, however, for the fact that many companies are not going to offer the same amount to you as your last company did. After all, you probably received raises and promotions at your last job.

• Don't be bitter. Remember, a negative attitude conveys itself as an old attitude. Where else do we get the idea of "grumpy old men?" A positive attitude is a youthful attitude.

To make the transition to another job, an employee must remain agile, regardless of age. You can teach an old dog new tricks, if you can get the old dog to want to learn. A 60-year-old professional can pick up new skills with the same competence as a 20-year-old. It's not the age that matters; it's the ambition that counts.

Success is a matter of risk. Look at the top five songs in the country, according to Billboard magazine. They are by female artists, and of the five, Brandy, Britney Spears, Monica and Deborah Cox are in their late teens or early 20s. But the No. 4 song is by, of all people, Cher, who is still a success at age 52. Although she could be the mother of her contemporaries, she is still taking on new adventures. She is unafraid to take risks, which is evident, considering some of the outfits she wears.

"I'm going to do it. I'm going to take risks," promises Luckinbill. "I'll take a computer class and keep applying for a better job. And if that doesn't work, I'll become a Cher impersonator." Who wouldn't pay to see that?

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