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What it’s like to hunt for a job in Colorado when you’re over 50

Older workers dropped out of the state’s labor force during the pandemic. Some say age discrimination keeps them from getting a new job.

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Cat McQueen, who joined the throngs of Coloradans who lost their jobs in the pandemic, has a droll sense of humor when sharing what it’s been like to look for a job at age 63.

There’s the you-have-an-impressive-resume-but-we-went-with-someone-else response. “If you have impressive qualifications, what other qualifications do they seek,” wonders McQueen, who lost her job as a research associate at a college last year. 

Or the we-have-an-opening-right-now-in-Fort-Collins-for-$17-an-hour message from a recruiter. She lives in Brighton, 50 miles away. “Why would I drive that far for such an insulting rate of pay?” she said. “Not only no, but hell no!”

Cat McQueen, 63, at her home in Brighton. McQueen holds degrees in math and computer science from the Metropolitan State University of Denver along with a Master’s in adult education and training. She’s been looking for a good job ever since she was laid off as a research associate during summer 2020 due to tightening budgets. “You’ve got so many things going against you: You’re a woman; you’re getting old; you have standards,” McQueen said. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

But some of the most common are employers who want graduation dates, photos on resumes or an answer to the cringy question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” 

“Honesty gets you nowhere. You can’t just say retired,” McQueen said. “They are making ageist assumptions about you with this question.”

She’s a member of one of the largest groups of workers to leave the labor force in the pandemic: adults 55 and older. Some left for health reasons. Others called it an early retirement. Countless others lost their jobs because of downsizing, COVID-19 business disruptions or reasons unrelated to the pandemic. McQueen’s departure wasn’t her choice and she’s been searching for a job that adequately pays her for her 20+ years in higher ed, a bachelor’s degree in math, a master’s in adult education and a raft of other expertise ever since.

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“I am exhausted looking for a job,” McQueen said. “I often wonder about the future and what happens when they, the discriminators, become age-discriminated in the workforce? What happens when only the young are employable?”

While job prospects for people in their 50s, 60s and 70s may appear dismal, this age-old challenge has been on the state’s radar for years because the next generation of employable young people is shrinking, as seen in the chart below. Efforts to tackle age discrimination at a statewide level and get employers to tap into this underutilized labor force stalled during the pandemic. But there’s renewed momentum to get it back on track. Colorado workers are getting older and the state needs all the workers it can get in the future.

At 37.5 years old, the state’s median age has aged five years since 1990. In another 30 years, the median age is forecast to grow older still, reaching 42.2. By 2050 adults 65 and older will double in population to 1.6 million and outnumber children under 16 by 30%, according to the state demography office. Currently, children under 16 outnumber adults 65 and older by 26%. 

“Everyone is chasing young people but there are less of them,” said Karen Brown, CEO of iAging. “The birth rate has declined because younger women are saying I don’t need a baby, I don’t want a child or I only want one child. And yet, we have all these people who are growing older.”

Ageism persists

Older workers have forced themselves to adapt to society’s expectations. Susan Liehe, who works in the Denver Economic Development and Opportunity office, said she leaves dates for her college degrees off of her resume “to protect myself.” 

“I also cut off my first eight years of experience, even though it is directly related to the arc of my career,” Liehe said.

Lisa Kunze, who’s in her mid 50s and has a master’s in education, couldn’t find a job in her field when she moved with her son to Empire six years ago. She felt employers took one look at her and put her in the “‘overqualified’ and ‘old’ and in the ‘OK, boomer’ category,’” she said.

Lisa Kunze, an Empire resident in her mid-50s, balances four “semi-retirement” jobs that don’t make use of her master’s in education, but allowed her to remain in Clear Creek County to raise her son. She took a selfie of herself while walking a service dog, Krash, in Central City on Nov. 17, 2021. “Even walking the service dog Krash just now in Central City reminded me to be more like the water, as Bruce Lee said,” Kunze said. (Provided by Lisa Kunze)

She now works two seasonal jobs in Clear Creek County where she can “watch the snow fall” in the winter and switch to work as a river-rafting photographer in the summer. She also began tutoring online part time, as well as caring for a disabled friend. She also serves on the Empire board of trustees, she said, to “fulfill my altruistic needs.”

“I have pieced together a 75-hour work week that just may keep me afloat until I can retire in seven years at 65,” Kunze said. “No dream final career found, but I have views I never knew to dream (about) at all four of my semi-retirement jobs.”

Age discrimination has been an acknowledged part of work for decades. The U.S. labor law forbidding employment discrimination by age was directly addressed in The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967

Nevertheless, ageism persists. This year, at least 10 companies were sued, settled or lost to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for discriminating against older workers. One was the Telluride Express in Montrose, which lost a lawsuit filed by the EEOC saying the shuttle service denied an experienced 79-year-old driver a job because their auto insurance policy didn’t cover drivers who were “too old.”

“The state’s employers tend to focus on younger people and think that if you’re my age and you’re starting to get gray hair, you’re going to retire,” said Brown, who is 67. “Well, you know what? A lot of people can’t retire. And you know what? Half the people who are 55 and over have zero money.” 

Brown is a member of community organizations that have been working with state officials on aging policies since 2015, when House Bill 1033 passed and created the Strategic Action Planning Group on Aging. One initiative supported by SAPGA, of which Brown is a member, was a retirement plan for all Coloradans. Senate Bill 200 passed last year and will create a state-facilitated retirement plan open to workers who don’t have one.

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But there’s still a lot to be done. Last year, the group proposed other action Colorado should take to better support older workers. Those included identifying more remote-work options, creating programs that match jobs to workers, and offering incentives to companies that adopt diversity policies for hiring people over 50. (A new report will be released in February.)

People are living well past 65 and may find themselves retired for 30 years or longer, Brown said.

“Like my mother, at 92, she said, ‘If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would have kept working and doing something,’” Brown said. “That’s a long time for R&R.”

Dispelling the myths of old workers

COVID-19 really hurt the cause.

In early 2020, Changing the Narrative was planning for a big year. The age-focused organization, funded by the NextFifty Initiative, spent the prior two years conducting workshops and gathering insight on ageism. The focus for 2020 was on age-friendly workplaces — and getting employers to publicly say they hire older workers.

“We literally had somewhere in the vicinity of 12 to 15 companies reach out and say, ‘Yes,’ because there’s a talent shortage. And boom. The pandemic, right? Everything shuts down,” said Janine Vanderburg, Changing the Narrative’s director. “A number of companies that had reached out to us basically said, ‘Call us back at the end of 2020.’”

Janine Vanderburg, director of Changing the Narrative, an age-focused NextFifty initiative. She’s educating employers throughout the state on age-friendly workplaces that value the expertise and experience of older adults. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

But what may have hurt more was the narrative of older adults getting sick and dying of COVID.

“We had our highest elected officials, governors across the country, all of our elected public health officials saying daily: poor, weak, vulnerable elderly, poor, weak, vulnerable elderly. And they were literally defining elderly as ages 60 and 65,” said Vanderburg, who is 68. “It contradicts the underlying message of valuable older workers.”

There is social value and quantitative value. Older workers bring life experience, can provide mentorship or fit into managerial roles. Keeping older adults employed gives individuals a sense of purpose, which in turn has positive health outcomes, according to various studies.   

There’s also the business case. Older workers tend to stay with their employers longer, reducing turnover and the costs associated with filling that role. 

The rate of salaried workers age 55 and older who stay with current employers for five years or more was more than twice as high as workers between 25 to 34, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. At 20 years or more, workers 55 and older stayed at the same employer at rates three times longer than everyone else.

Tenure means experience and that’s high value, said Rick Guzzo, who leads the Workforce Sciences Institute at consulting firm Mercer. They’ve gained institutional knowledge of the business, key customers, products and social networks. 

“There’s an absence of appreciation of the fact that there could be real value in experience that’s unique to that firm that only comes with age,” he said. “Generally speaking about older workers, we think about age but we don’t think about the value to the business that age brings with longevity for an employer.”

People over 65 who delay retirement spend more than their retired peers, which pumps money back into the economy, according to Fidelity Investments. It also benefits the worker. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that working at least three months past retirement age could produce the same increase in retirement income as saving one extra percentage point of an individual’s earnings for 30 years.

On the other hand, reasons against hiring older workers remain, even if they’re not quite true.

“There’s a lot of myths especially in my region,” said Erin Fisher, with Vintage, which provides resources for aging adults in northwest Colorado as part of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. “You may think that because somebody is an older adult in Vail or Aspen, they don’t want a job. But I’ve got data to tell you that you’re wrong.”

A 2018 survey found that 70% to 80% of area residents 45 and older planned to continue working into their retirement years. Reasons were for financial stability, enjoyment of work and the desire to try something new. Northwest Colorado also has the honor of having the top three counties — Summit, Eagle and Pitkin — with the longest life expectancy in the U.S., according to a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in 2017.

“They link that to having a sense of purpose with life expectancy. And having a job also plays into a lot of people’s sense of purpose,” Fisher said.

There’s a seal on our website that says we hire older workers.

Kristine Burrows, Jewish Family Service Colorado

There is a belief that older adults cost more to employ. Or that they’re bad at technology. Those are really ageless issues, said Kristine Burrows, director of Aging Care and Connections at Jewish Family Service Colorado.

“The myth of the cost of the older worker is a huge one,” Burrows said. Many have health care insurance or Medicare. And they have no dependents. 

“Somebody like me, who has a family, I’m likely costing the company way more than somebody who’s over the age for 65 from an insurance perspective,” said Burrows, who is 30.

As for technology?

“There’s a stereotype that older people can’t use, access or work (with) technology. That’s not really the case either,” she said. “We’re all learning new technologies everyday. Older people who’ve been in the workforce longer have gone through upgrades in technology, whether that’s email or cloud computing. Everybody is learning as we go.”

What is an age friendly workplace?

In May, Jewish Family Service became one of the first age-friendly employers certified in Colorado (the first was Vintage in Silverthorne). The nonprofit human services agency provides support for those in the community who need it and about 30% of the people who use its services are older adults.

“There’s a seal on our website that says we hire older workers,” Burrows said. “It’s a certification we sought out because it’s important to us as an employer to be age equitable.”

While it’s only been about six months, Burrows added, “We’ve seen a bit of an uptick of older applicants and I think it’s because of that seal.”

The Jewish Family Service of Colorado is seen on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Denver. JFS is the first employer in Colorado to be certified as an age-friendly employer. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The certifications began about 15 years ago by the Age Friendly Institute, said Tim Driver, its president who also founded the original site, RetirementJobs.com. The mission was to highlight companies that were taking steps to deliberately become an age-friendly workplace. 

The organization went after large, national employers, such as Comcast and Starbucks, and won recognition from AARP and policy makers. Today, there are about 125 certified companies. And thanks to its first affiliate partnership with Changing the Narrative, there are about a half dozen in Colorado.

That interest has picked up in the pandemic recovery, Driver said, and the numbers could double in 12 months. Reasons for that include a surge in corporate diversity policies — being age-friendly fits right in. And in the tight labor market, this is an explicit sign to outsiders and employees of how older workers will fare at the company. 

“It helps employers stand apart from, unfortunately, the majority of employers that don’t proactively recruit and retain people over the age of 50,” he said.

For certification, the institute asks applicants about benefits, how internal policies are worded and how many workers a company has who are over 50 (though, Driver added, “we don’t have a quota”). It looks for awareness companywide, including the pictures used in branding (“Are all the pictures showing a bunch of people who are early in their career?” he said.) It frowns on training programs that exclude workers nearing retirement. It wants commitment from the top.

“What we really want to see is age neutrality. We’re not looking to show favoritism to older workers, per se,” he said. “We’re just looking to see that there’s no negative disparate impact.”

Results are anecdotal still. But the organization received new grant funding and plans to provide more comprehensive reporting on the outcomes.

On Feb. 26, 2021, Northwest Colorado Council of Governments became the state’s first company to be approved as a Certified Age Friendly Employer. Since then, five other Colorado companies have received CAFE certification from the Age Friendly Foundation. Certification means that the company hires older workers and has policies that do not discriminate against applicants or employees based on age. (Provided by Northwest Colorado Council of Governments)

Jewish Family Service already had age-friendly policies. But they still tweaked some language, such as adding “including older job seekers” to its internal hiring policy manual. Job postings also say, “A job for which all ages, including older job seekers, are encouraged to apply.”

The organization was probably a shoo-in from the start because it was already walking the talk by offering flexibility. When a long-time employee considered retiring but wasn’t ready to make the final leap, the agency helped her reduce her caseload so she could work four days a week, and later, three. 

“She was a wealth of knowledge at the organization for over 20 years. Being able to retain her was really helpful,” Burrows said. “We just continued to drop her (full-time hours) until she was ready to retire.”

And JFS doesn’t ask job applicants for graduation dates or five-year plans. 

“We don’t do it for younger people and, you know, younger people may not stay at the job for five years either,” she said. “The bottom line is that any age-friendly policy will be helpful for an older worker and a younger worker. If having flexibility is helpful for an older worker, such as tailoring their schedules or dropping from (full time) and offering flexibility, that’s going to be helpful for a new mom. We want to retain high-quality employees no matter their age.”

Kristine Burrows, MPH Director of Jay and Rose Phillips Aging Care and Connections, poses for a portrait on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Denver. JFS is the second employer in Colorado to be certified as an age-friendly employer. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Age-friendly isn’t a cure all 

Even progressive companies with age-friendly policies are having problems filling job openings. 

“A year ago, if we put an ad out, we’d probably get 15 to 20, 40 qualified individuals, depending on the position. Now when we’re putting an ad out, we get zero, maybe three responses,” said Randy Arnold, division director of human resources at the Denver Regional Council of Governments, which became certified as age-friendly this year. “It’s a different environment.”

He’s hoping the certification will help. But the agency, which works to improve life in the Denver region, already had policies to avoid discrimination, such as a blind application process implemented two years ago. Personally identifiable information, including dates, are scrubbed, he said. 

“We want to remove anything that can trigger implicit bias,” he said.  

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Arnold, who’s 56, thinks older job applicants don’t know what DRCOG has done. Its own employees also may not be aware of policies that will benefit them as they get older, too. DRCOG offers hybrid work weeks, a loose eight-hour workday for those who need to come in earlier or stay later, and compressed weeks that cram more hours into a day to allow for a three-day weekend.

“Some had been in place prior, but (employees) weren’t taking advantage of them,” Arnold said. “We are encouraging it now. We still see value in having folks in the office, but it doesn’t mean you have to be there five days a week.”

Changing the Narrative and others plan to push for stronger age-discrimination laws and get rid of things like age identifiers, Vanderburg said, “because we know it’s illegal to ask them what their age is, but it’s not illegal to ask them their high school graduation date.”

“There’s all this discussion among older people who are applying for jobs in retail and they’re being asked their high school graduation date and they’re not getting called back,” she said. “I know ageism is still alive and well.”

Cat McQueen, 63, poses for a portrait on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, at her home in Brighton. McQueen holds degrees in math and computer science from the Metropolitan State University of Denver along with a Master’s in adult education and training. She was laid off from her most recent position as a research associate during summer 2020 due to tightening budgets and the lack of an ‘ability to learn’, McQueen said. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

And that’s still the case for Cat McQueen, who’s considering giving up her job hunt at 63. It’s all just been too ironic.  

“I just shake my head and I go, you know, it was really hard for me to get into the workforce when I was 18 years old because I didn’t have experience,” she said. “And now years later, I have all of these experiences. This should realistically be able to get me a job, but I can’t get one.”

In the job market?

iAging’s Karen Brown offered suggestions for older workers who are job hunting:

  • WAHVE —  A staffing agency matching “vintage professionals” with companies that are seeking skilled workers and offering benefits like remote work. >> wahve.com
  • Distinguished Legal Advisor Program —  Recruiting firm Gibson Arnold & Associates hires experienced attorneys nearing retirement who need short-term legal work. Fees tend to be much lower than hiring in-house counsel. >> DETAILS
  • NOWCC — The National Older Worker Career Center connects professionals age 55+ to part-time and full-time jobs around the country. >> DETAILS
  • CAFE approved — More companies are getting certified by the Age Friendly Institute for workplace policies that provide flexibility and welcome older workers. >> See the list

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