You’d like Lynn (not her real name). She’s friendly, fun, and bright – also a talented and accomplished leader, having worked her way up the ladder in the field of philanthropic fundraising. Her resume lists exactly the kinds of experience a recruiter wants to see, with increasing levels of responsibility and breadth of scope at each position change. She has also utilized well the opportunities she had to acquire and polish new skills, to make her an even more valuable leader in future roles.
Among her credentials is the bachelor’s degree that Lynn completed only a year after the birth of her last child, while she was raising a blended family of five children. More recently she earned a master’s degree in leadership while working full-time as the chief executive of a successful fundraising organization. During her tenure every campaign either met or exceeded each of its goals, even though the economy was contracting and recession was imminent. Some of Lynn’s children faced some challenges as they grew up, and Lynn never hesitated to provide them with any resources she could to help them get past the tough spots. A genuinely good person, an industrious and energetic worker, a compassionate and caring parent, altogether a solid citizen – that’s how I’d describe Lynn.
But there are two more things you should know: Lynn is 68 years old, and she is unemployed.
For the past five years she has been engaged in an intensive job search. At this stage of life, when she thought she would be winding down a successful career and planning to travel and spend time with her grandchildren, she is constantly networking and sniffing out and following up leads to possible jobs. She’s also praying that her recently discovered heart disease won’t eat up the remaining retirement savings that haven’t already been liquidated. What happened?
Lynn was terminated from the chief executive job after a series of disagreements with an incoming board chair. Within a few months she had taken the CEO job at a similar organization in a different state, which required that she and her husband sell their home and relocate; they did this during the depths of the recession. About a year later the board decided to make a major shift in direction, and she was told that her skills and experience no longer filled their leadership requirements. A few months after that, she was hired for a foundation position in an institution of higher learning. Months later a fiscal crisis led to the abrupt downsizing of the administration staff, and her job was eliminated along with those of a large number of others. The result: Lynn and her husband now live in a house they can’t afford, in a small town with few opportunities in her field. She has been unable to locate a position within commuting distance. Their financial situation is dire; her morale is shaky.
It’s not that Lynn isn’t finding appropriate openings or getting interviews. In fact, she gets at least one and usually two or more interviews for every job she applies for. She has been the runner-up candidate because she “wasn’t quite what they were looking for” more times than she cares to remember. Sometimes she is edged out by a local candidate, often a person in his or her 30s or 40s. Assuming that recruiters worry about her retiring after working two or three years, Lynn tells me she wishes she could volunteer to the interviewers that she needs to work seven years at a minimum. That would (she hopes) allow her to recover a basic level of financial stability before the work schedule and stress become too demanding for her. But begging is hardly professional.
Lynn is convinced that the greatest barrier to her landing a job is bias against older workers. She reasons that it isn’t that her qualifications or experience are lacking; otherwise, she wouldn’t get the interviews or rise to the finalist level in the competitions. But when it comes down to making hiring decisions, organizations consider a younger person a better risk. Lynn is well aware of the information on older workers that has been accumulating in the human resources field for more than 25 years: that older employees actually cost less than younger workers to hire and bring onboard. Their longer experience means they have learned how to learn on any job – problem-solving, working in a team, locating and accessing resources – which in turn means that their learning curve and associated costs are considerably less. Older workers also stay in their jobs longer on average than younger workers who may be looking for the next step in their climb up the professional ladder. But so far these data are not reflected in attitudes and hiring practices.
If you were to ask Lynn how she keeps herself in a positive frame of mind, she would probably say that she has no choice, and she might admit that most of the time her mood actually vacillates somewhere between fury and fright. She has said to me several times in recent months that she’s afraid to be hopeful about any opportunity anymore, because it only sets her up for a deeper disappointment when she loses out again.
The bottom line is that Lynn is a good person to whom bad things continue to happen. She suffers intensely, but I suspect you wouldn’t see that if you met her. In fact I doubt that I would pick that up on a first or second interaction if I didn’t know her, and I wonder how many other Lynns I have failed to recognize along the way. I also wonder what I could do to make even a small dent in their pain. Still working on that one …
Jo Glasser is working on a book for publication by Blue Ear Books. She lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin.