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Finding a Job at 50 and Beyond: Book Reviews

by Patricia Schaefer

By Betsy Cummings

By Barbara Ehrenreich

Two different books addressing the plight of finding employment over the age of 50 have appeared on the book scene.

In How to Find a Job after 50, award-winning business reporter Betsy Cummings provides a guide to AARP-eligible individuals on how to find a job as well as how to reassess and redirect their careers if warranted or desired.

Best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent tome, Bait and Switch, describes her latest undercover exploits into the world of the unemployed white collar professional. During her seven-month journey, 50-plus Ehrenreich never did achieve her objective of being hired for a white-collar position. Where did she go wrong? Or did she?

How to Find a Job After 50
by Betsy Cummings
ISBN: 0446695394
Paperback (trade)
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“The good news in all of this is that being handed that proverbial pink slip or finding yourself suddenly itching to get out of your current work situation later in life is not, by any means, the end of your professional world. There are endless arrays of work options out there for people over fifty – opportunities that are growing almost exponentially each year. The key is to get focused, know what you want, realize what it will take to get there, then deliberately, methodically work toward that goal – with a willingness to compromise along the way.”

Author Betsy Cummings paints a fairly rosy employment picture for the more than 76 million baby boomers who today are 41 to 59 years of age. Citing and quoting predictions of a major labor shortage when boomers reach their retirement years, Cummings points to the wealth of job opportunities and arrangements that will be afforded the over-50 crowd.

Missing from Cummings’ book is the contrasting theory from some experts that this impending baby-boomer-caused labor shortage is simply an overblown and overstated myth. Even the most skeptical theorists, though, do agree that boomers in the coming years will be encouraged by employers to keep working well past age 65, and will be offered a variety of work arrangements in order to keep them in the work force.

Cummings devotes a number of pages to those 50-and-older individuals who suddenly find themselves unemployed, and provides resources and tips on how to reacquire gainful employment. Resources include listings of older worker job boards, positions in which older workers have a better chance of being employed, and an appendix of “AARP’s 2004 Best Employers for Workers Over 50.” Tips are provided on: how to debunk older worker myths, combat and counteract age discrimination during job interviews, and how to use the valuable work ethic, skills, and experience of the “older worker” to one’s advantage.

Most of Cummings’ book, though, is focused on reassessing and redirecting careers and work arrangements; i.e., new careers, part-time employment, and starting up and investing in a franchise or new business. Considering the fact that: today’s average credit card debt is $9500, the median household income $44,000, the cost of health care ever-rising, and 41 percent of workers aged 45 to 54 have saved less than $25,000 for retirement (2005 Retirement Confidence Survey); many of these suggested risky or alternative work arrangements may not be realistic or fare well financially for much of today’s 50-and-older crowd.

The “Women in the Workplace” chapter is full of valuable information, but solely for those women reentering the job market after years away. A welcome addition might have been something for the 50-and-older women in the workforce who already have long-term established jobs and suddenly lose them; what these “women in the workforce” can effectively do to regain employment.

How to Find a Job After 50 serves its readers well, but I would have liked to have seen a little less on “rethinking, investing, and risking” and a little more on “finding.”

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Bait and Switch
By Barbara Ehrenreich
Published by Metropolitan Books;
September 2005;
$24.00US/$29.95CAN; 0-8050-7606-9
Copyright © 2005 Barbara Ehrenreich
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One can’t help but laugh at some of author Barbara Ehrenreich’s descriptions of efforts made to get her “job ready,” particularly her amusing account of her “Image Management” makeover:

“He moves along to color in general, where I receive a major blow: I can never wear gray or black again, because they drain the color from my face. This pretty much condemns me to nudity, since my entire wardrobe is black and gray, and not because I’m striving for New York City-style coolness, circa 1995. The truth is I spill on everything, so no peach or yellow item has ever survived more than two or three wearings. Even my conservative silver brooch, a gift from my Norwegian publisher, is deemed “not corporate” by Prescott. All this time I had thought I was a perfectly presentable-looking middle-class professional, when in fact I must come across as a misfit, a mess.”

But this is where the mirth and merriment end in this somber and futile tale of a job search gone unactualized.

In Ehrenreich’s bestselling book Nickel and Dimed, she told of her undercover odyssey into the working world of the low-wage earner, taking jobs like waitressing and housecleaning, and revealed some of the real-life survival struggles and needs of the working poor.

In Bait and Switch, Ehrenreich once again goes incognito; this time after being enlightened to the recent plight of the many ejected white-collar professionals at the start of this decade - and their sometimes long-term difficulties in reacquiring their coveted corporate positions. People who “did everything right;” – like getting good grades, college degrees, and corporate jobs – and yet managed to end up unemployed and sometimes having to settle for “survival” jobs. Ehrenreich wanted to “enter this new world myself, as an undercover reporter, and to see what I could learn about the problems firsthand. Were people being driven out of their corporate jobs? What did it take to find a new one? And, if things were as bad as some reports suggested, why was there so little protest?”

Ehrenreich legally changed her name and faked a resume (“I wanted it as much as possible to represent my actual skills.”) in order to search for a public relations position in corporatedom. Her job search employed the use of career coaches, personality testing, job boards and fairs, networking sessions, an image makeover, how-to-books, and executive job-search training sessions. As a result, Ehrenreich’s job search efforts cost her over $6,000 – and for naught. The only offers she did get – before calling it quits – were sales jobs that paid on commission, with no benefits.

So why didn’t Ehrenreich achieve her goal of landing herself that corporate job? In her conclusion, she acknowledges that “Less mutable qualities, like age, may have worked against me (she was well over 50 at the time).” Among some other things, her lack of contacts may have also played a part: “A normal job seeker of my age would have acquired a rolodex of contacts to turn to when unemployment hit – people she knew through previous jobs and social contacts in the corporate world.”

“It is the existence of so many other luckless job seekers,” says Ehrenreich, “many of them far more likely to succeed than myself, that makes me believe I probably did not do such a shoddy job of searching after all … months later, most of them are no closer to a job than I am.”

Considering that “experts note that anywhere from 70 to 80 percent of all job offers result from a networking contact (How to Find a Job After 50),” and that Ehrenreich admittedly had none, her lack of contacts might have in fact played a significant part in her joblessness.

It also seems a contradiction that, on the one hand, Ehrenreich acknowledges that her age could very possibly have been a real deterrent to getting a white-collar job; yet, on the other hand, she appeared to do very little to address this during her job search. There was no focus on using resources specifically designed and available for older workers, or on methods she might have utilized to combat or counteract age discrimination (with the exception of a resume adjustment).

Were things really as bad in corporate-America as Ehrenreich had heard? Perhaps, but one can’t come to this conclusion based solely on Ehrenreich’s somewhat-flawed job-search experiment.

Ehrenreich – and those quoted in her book - rail at the corporate establishment:

  • Unemployed as “innocent victims of mass purges” and “corporate instability.”
  • “skilled and experienced people routinely find their skills unwanted and their experience discounted.”
  • “A lot has to do with greed. It’s so cold-blooded now. There’s no warning, no thanks, just take your stuff and don’t come back tomorrow.”
  • “The corporation has become a site for internal predation, where one person can advance eliminating another one’s job.”
  • “demise of the ‘old paradigm’ based on mutual loyalty between the company and its employees;” replaced with a “lean and mean” trend.

These assertions sadly ring true and – with predictions of continued economic growth and a significant increase in employee turnover ahead - these same corporations may soon be suffering the consequences of overburdened and embittered workers; when their white-collar employees abandon ship as soon as better employment opportunities come along.

Ehrenreich’s ultimate conclusion about the white-collar unemployed: “The tragedy is that they could be doing so much more.” They should begin to act as a political force working on things like: “expansion of current unemployment benefits... extending potentially for years”; acquiring “a system of universal health insurance that is not tied in any way to your job”; and fighting legislation like the 2005 federal bankruptcy law which she says, “eliminates the possibility of a fresh start for debt-ridden individuals, will condemn more and more of the unemployed and underemployed to a life of debt peonage.” Knowing Ehrenreich’s political leanings, one can’t help but consider her conclusions as somewhat of a promotion of her own political agenda.

Although one would be hard pressed to find many opposed to the idea of universal health insurance, Ehrenreich’s other ideas may not appeal to those who don’t share her socialistic beliefs. The bankruptcy bill Ehrenreich claims is such an affront and attack on the American people has been applauded by others as necessary legislation to curb the mushrooming bankruptcy filings that cost each bill-paying American an extra $400 a year.

Political agendas aside, I found Bait and Switch to be an intelligent and illuminating warts-and-all spotlight on recent corporate America, and will serve as a time-capsule snapshot of today’s business world for generations to come.

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