With turnover rampant and “Help Wanted” signs popping up everywhere, more employers are welcoming — or welcoming back — older workers, a group that has long felt derided and overlooked in the nation’s Darwinian labor market.
Kim Johnson, 57, a chemist from Manchester, Conn., was out of work for seven months during the COVID-19 pandemic. Late last year, she landed a job as a quality assurance auditor for Wilmington-based Charles River Labs at its lab in Storrs, Conn.
“There’s just more jobs out there, more opportunity,” she said. “I could see the pickup in the calls and interviews I got. As soon as there’s a job opening now, the recruiters are on the horn.”
Employment data show the number of older workers has been slowly edging up after a sharp dropoff at the outset of the pandemic, when millions lost their jobs or left the workforce voluntarily.
Last week, the Labor Department reported the US jobless rate dropped to 3.6 percent, a postpandemic low, as employers added an average of 600,000 jobs a month since last fall. The number of workers over 55 in the labor force grew by nearly 1 million in the past year.
Not all older applicants are finding the doors open, and many still aren’t ready to return to full-time jobs without more flexible schedules and the option to work from home. But plenty of employers have become more adaptable, in part to accommodate working families who had kids learning from home earlier in the pandemic.
That’s meant employees like Charlene Neu, 63, of Milton, laid off from a full-time job last summer, has been able to land several part-time jobs — among them, as a swim instructor and elder-care case manager — that fit with her preference for a hybrid schedule where she can work remotely on some days and in an office on others.
“This works for me,” she said. “Before, it was an employers’ market. Now it’s a job market where we’re all still figuring out what employees need and what an employer wants.”
Jay Millstone, 53, an insurance analyst from Wakefield who lost his job in a company restructuring just before the pandemic, worked in some contracting gigs before being hired full time last year as director of financial planning and analysis for a small California insurer that had just shifted to remote work.
“I like that I don’t have to get up at 5 o’clock and dig myself out on a snowy day to get to the T,” he said. “A lot more companies are willing to go remote or hybrid, and are opening up to people outside their normal [geographic] range. Otherwise I would have never gotten this job. I wasn’t moving to California.”
While some businesses remain resistant to embracing older employees, others are adapting in ways that would have been hard to imagine in the past. When the Publicis Groupe hosted an online panel titled “Advice to My Younger Self” last year, the intergenerational event was sponsored by a relatively new employee group called Sages, made up of US staffers over 50 years old and their younger allies at the firm.
Sages’ aim is “to make [older] people feel included,” said Geraldine White, chief diversity officer at Publicis, a global marketing and communications firm that owns dozens of agencies, including Digitas and Sapient in Boston. “If you think about it, we will all hopefully get to be over 50 some time.”
In-house affinity groups for older workers may be a sign that pockets of corporate America are warming to gray-haired employees — and in some cases, folding them into businesses’ diversity and inclusion efforts.
“It’s a cultural shift,” said Tim Driver, founder of the Age-Friendly Institute in Waltham, which vets and certifies employers open to hiring older workers and publishes a national list of those that earned his organization’s stamp of approval.
Some recruiters cite the strong work ethic of older workers, saying they’re more likely than younger colleagues to show up on time and less apt to quit or call in sick — all assets in a heating economy dogged by severe labor shortages.
“Employers react to need,” said Doug Dickson, board chair of Encore Boston Network, which helps people over 50 find work. “When they see an opportunity to solve a problem, they go in that direction. . . . This is a market where if you are prepared and you fit the need of hiring employers, you can get a job.”
Economists say several trends are converging to scramble the employment picture. Young employees are jumping between jobs more frequently than in the past. Workers of all ages have rushed for the exits in a coronavirus-fueled “great resignation.” But others who bailed out of the labor force early in the pandemic are “un-retiring” and returning to work.
“We’re seeing much more churn than we’ve had before,” said Erica Groshen, a senior economics adviser at Cornell who formerly headed the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
So-called boomerang employees who left jobs are now in demand, said Dave DeLong, a Concord consultant on workforce issues. “If you’re already desperate for talent,” he said, “you’re nuts not to be looking at older workers.”
Slowing turnover is a priority for employers, said Phil Hendrickson, a Seattle recruiting consultant who years ago launched a program at Starbucks to hire older workers and veterans, demographics valued for their loyalty.
“We don’t have a hard time finding people,” he said. “We have a hard time keeping them.” When an employee leaves, he said, it can be costly for companies to “find, hire, and train a new person.”
The fresh demand for older workers coincides with a heightened focus by businesses and other organizations on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Companies like Publicis see age as one more feature woven into their diverse workforce tapestry, along with race, gender, and sexual orientation.
“There’s a strong business case for a workforce that brings different experience, skills, ideas, and mindsets to the table,” said Elizabeth Harris, a founding member of Sages.
Some labor market watchers question whether the environment has really improved for all older employees, though, especially those in the tech sector and in blue-collar jobs.
In a report last week, the New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis in New York said the size of the nation’s retired population swelled by an additional 1.1 million older adults beyond the normal trend since March 2020. Many were pushed out of jobs during the COVID-19 lockdowns rather than leaving on their own, and have given up looking for work.
Ageism, a toxic mix of bias and stereotypes, persists in some industries, notably technology and other innovation sectors, where a startup culture and youthful vibe hold sway.
“Employers used the pandemic as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get rid of older workers,” said Teresa Ghilarducci, a New School economics professor. She said the labor market remains “inhospitable” to many hourly workers in service businesses.
A recent lawsuit against IBM claims the company illegally shed older workers in an effort to remake itself in the image of its Silicon Valley rivals. Other high-tech giants, such as HP, have faced similar age discrimination complaints.
Noel Anderson, a New York University professor who heads its leadership and innovation program, said recruiters in many sectors now use algorithms designed to weed out older job applicants by identifying the year they graduated from college or outdated programming languages listed on their resumes.
“The algorithm has become its own kind of monster,” Anderson said. At the same time, he said, online platforms that advertise jobs are laced with terms, like “recent college graduate” and “digital native,” aimed at filtering out older applicants.
At the same time, some older workers appear to be hanging back; they’re still more vulnerable to COVID than younger colleagues, and many in white-collar jobs have become comfortable with remote work in the last two years.
“They want to work remotely rather than in a face-to-face office situation,” said Karen Sowsy, project manager for 50-Plus Job Seekers in Massachusetts, a statewide networking program.