Meeting the Midcareer Moment

World of Work November 18, 2021

The headlines blare from newspapers and websites, echoing the “Help Wanted” signs posted on storefronts. For the workforce in many countries, it’s a historic moment. Bargaining power is shifting from employers to workers. Job openings are high, as are the numbers quitting current jobs to seek better ones. To attract talent, companies are paying more and offering more – more flexibility, more training, more willingness to take chances on people without traditional qualifications.

With one big exception. Midcareer workers who are age 45 and older are still out of luck. This group accounts for the bulk of the long-term unemployed from the US to Spain to Singapore.  And despite today’s positive tailwinds, the age-based biases they confront are so deep and so persistent, they won’t be overcome simply by sticking with the status quo.

That is the key takeaway from a global survey conducted by Generation: You Employed, the global nonprofit organization that I lead. As an organization, our programs initially focused on youth unemployment, and so far we have trained and placed more than 46,000 adults in careers. In 2018, we expanded our programs to include midcareer individuals and have served ~1,000 of this cohort to date. Our recent survey, Meeting the World’s Midcareer Moment, spans seven countries and asked questions of four groups – employers, age 45+ unemployed, those age 45+ who successfully switched careers, and age 18-44 unemployed – and is the first comprehensive effort of its kind to understand the age 45+ cohort’s unique challenges. 

Our data confirms that ageism is real—and it’s global. Hiring managers around the world expressed a strong preference for job candidates in the demographic sweet spot of age 35-44 (a natural affinity since the majority of those hiring managers are also under age 45). Employers declared those age 45+ candidates seeking entry-level or intermediate roles as having no strengths relative to their younger peers, finding them less adaptable, less skilled, and less likely to fit with the company’s culture. 

No surprise then that the age 45+ cohort in all seven countries regarded age as one of the biggest barriers they face in finding a job—71% among those who are unemployed and 53% among those who managed to switch careers successfully. Despite rising calls to address inequality and advance social justice, those who are age 45+, unemployed, and from underrepresented communities face an additional burden, reporting they had to engage in over 50% more interviews to even get a job offer relative to their broader community age 45+ peers.

And yet, one strikingly positive finding holds the key to overcoming all these other negatives. Those very same hiring managers who dismissed the potential of older workers in general also acknowledged that, in those cases where they had hired people age 45+ for entry or intermediate roles, 87% performed on the job just as well or better than peers who were a decade younger (and the most highly regarded age bracket by employers). And fully 90% of the age 45+ workers were seen by employers as having as much potential, or more, to stay with the company long term.

In short, in a world where decisions are made on the basis of fact versus perception, the employment prospects of age 45+ individuals should be much better than they are today.

Closing this perception-reality gap will take a host of interventions. Boosting prospects for the age 45+ unemployed with experience but little formal education requires employers to shift from resume-based interviews to more demonstration-based exercises.  Policymakers should consider moving away from investing in training alone to also offering stipends to cover living expenses and job interview guarantees to motivate the ~60 percent of age 45+ job seekers who today hesitate to participate in training. In stark contrast, we found that 74% of age 45+ workers who switched careers said the right training was critical to their success.  Further, employers in all seven of our surveyed countries viewed government wage subsidies as a less compelling incentive to hire a candidate, valuing instead reputable training and credentialing as much as they do years of experience in a job with adjacent skills.  Across the board, mindsets and not just methods need to shift.

In an aging world where most countries will see fewer new workers entering the labor force, enlightened self-interest will eventually compel employers to strive harder to retrain their existing age 45+ employees and to tap into the talent of the age 45+ job seekers willing to switch careers.

But given the rampant ageism that still prevails, waiting on market forces alone to solve the problem will condemn too many of our friends, neighbors, and parents to long-term unemployment and lives of not-so-quiet desperation. Focused action can help make this historic labor moment a moment for workers of all ages.