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Sloan Center News

Older Adults Struggle in Job Search

16 November 2010—While many older workers may need—and want to have—jobs, their plans may not be realized. According to a sobering new study by Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging & Work and the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, older job seekers often face daunting challenges in finding employment compared to younger workers.

The New Unemployables study reveals that, among job seekers unemployed during the recent recession, adults aged 55+ are finding it increasingly difficult to land a job and are more likely to remain out of work longer than younger job seekers. The findings discussed in this study are based on a national random sample of over 900 unemployed Americans surveyed in August of 2009 and follow-up interviews in March of 2010 conducted by the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. The study reveals that the vast majority (84%) of older workers who were unemployed in August 2009 were still unemployed in March 2010. More than two thirds of older job seekers (67%) included in the survey reported looking for work longer than a year.

As a result of their prolonged bouts of unemployment, many older job seekers have altered their retirement plans and dipped into their savings to make ends meet. “Most older workers feel they cannot afford to consider retirement,” says Carl Van Horn, Director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University and co-author of the New Unemployables study. “In the short term, they need access to more intensive job search assistance, training, and education to help ensure their skills fit the needs of today’s economy. In the longer term, older workers hope that more employers will reassess their hiring and retention policies and do more to welcome and accommodate this growing segment of the workforce.”

Both older and younger job seekers reported trying a range of strategies to reconnect to the labor market. Young people appear to be doing more to enhance their workplace skills and create job search networks, however. Just 12% of the older workers surveyed had taken new education or training courses in the past year, for example, compared to 20% of younger job seekers. At the same time, only 13% of older job seekers had used online social networking sites, compared to 28% of younger job seekers. Of those who use the internet, older seekers tended to use online bulletin boards (56%) while younger seekers most frequently opted to use Facebook (51%).

Interestingly, those aged 55 and over seem to recognize that their strategies are not effective. Overall, 64% of older job seekers rated the job search tools they were using as not helpful, compared to less than half (49%) of younger job seekers.

The study also explores the economic, social and emotional impacts experienced by people who lost jobs during the recession. Analyses indicate that older survey respondents believe that age discrimination has also played a major role in their inability to find a new job. In addition, among respondents aged 55+, feeling stressed was the primary reaction to being without a job (58%), followed by feeling depressed (39%) and anxious (38%).

Jacquelyn James, Research Director of the Sloan Center on Aging & Work says, “Being summarily dismissed from the workforce can really be damaging to the self esteem of older adults—feelings of embarrassment can also make it difficult to reach out to networks and friends. And such stress and anxiety can further hinder an older job seeker’s prospects, or even their desire to actively search for a job.”

Indeed, the data described in the New Unemployables study revealed that a large majority of older workers reported symptoms of stress such as uneasiness and restlessness, strain in family relations, changes in sleeping patterns, and avoidance of social situations.

“In such situations,” advises James, “it is important for older adults to reflect on the talent they bring to the workforce—the value they add. Older workers are generally more resilient and more engaged than younger workers—essential skills to emphasize when continuing the job search.”

To read/download The New Unemployables: Older Job Seekers Struggle to Find Work During the Great Recession—Comparing the Job Search, Financial, and Emotional Experiences of Older and Younger Unemployed Americans click here »


In August 2009, the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, working with Knowledge Networks and its online nationally representative probability sample, surveyed 1,202 men and women who had been unemployed at some point in the preceding year. This data was used to develop the Heldrich Center’s September 2009 report, “The Anguish of Unemployment”, part of the Center’s Work Trends series.

In March 2010, the Heldrich Center completed follow-up questionnaires with 908 of the original group, for a 76% panel completion rate. These new data were used for the Heldrich Center’s May 2010 Work Trends report, “No End in Sight: The Agony of Prolonged Unemployment.” The March data were also used for this study. To conduct the comparison between age groups, the Heldrich Center created a dichotomous variable for age, separating the groups into “under 55” and “55 and over”. The N size is 908 for the full sample, 295 for 55+ and 615 under 55, with a .025 (or 2.5%) sampling error.