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Important Context for Counselling Mature Workers

Mature workers are defined as workers or job seekers 45 years and older. Workers in this group are also known as older workers, near retirees, experienced workers, midlife adults, and working seniors.

In general, Albertans are living longer, healthier lives. The pattern and potential of their career span is changing. Mature workers may be placed on a continuum, from those who are healthy and doing satisfying work to those who are vulnerable and not able to find gainful employment.

As they approach traditional retirement age, mature workers may:

  • Choose to retire and then embark on a new path in their career
  • Stay in the workforce because they find the work satisfying and rewarding
  • Stay in the workforce because they do not have enough funds to retire
  • Stay in the workforce but fear layoff
  • Lose their jobs involuntarily and need to seek new employment
  • Want or need to care for family members
  • Want to combine work and other lifestyle options

Clients in this age category may think on whether or not they will have another chance to change what they’ve been doing or to follow a dream. They may want their later years to become a time for searching and experimenting.

Voluntary and involuntary career change

New beginnings at midlife

“Many of the people we work with are women, suddenly single. They have been moms and wives, have raised a family and contributed through volunteer work, but they may not have held jobs for years. The majority of men were divorced and now are in a second family. They worked predominantly in the oilfields, away a lot and don’t want to go down that road again. They are looking at what they can do with the rest of their life that will help them to sustain the first family and give them quality of life with the second family.”

—Barb Sheppard, Career Assistance Network

Mature workers in the job market can be categorized as voluntary or involuntary career changers.

Voluntary career changers are seeking more meaningful, more enjoyable, or different employment. They challenge the belief that decisions made in midlife should not be changed before retirement.

Involuntary career changers are people who, though they have satisfactory or exemplary employment records, may have been:

  • Laid off because of cutbacks, downsizing, mergers, and organizational restructuring
  • Laid off because of outdated skills
  • Laid off because of outmoded work roles or job classifications
  • Required to change work because of health issues
  • Required to change work because they need more income
  • Unable to secure a job despite their best efforts
  • Forced into early retirement

When mature workers experience deteriorating health and cannot return to work that has been important to them in life, their self-esteem may go down. Those who were newcomers, seasonally employed, semi-skilled, or skilled in 1 kind of work may have a history of job loss and periods of unemployment. Many of these people spend years saving for and looking forward to retirement. Therefore, an unplanned loss of employment income can result in a significant loss in savings. This financial loss also changes their view of their future and their sense of being able to control their quality of life.

Other mature workers, primarily women, may enter or re-enter the workforce because of a major life transition, such as:

  • Child-launching, particularly when the last child leaves home
  • Widowhood, to supplement a pension or to build a pension
  • Divorce, to replace the income that was supplied by the former spouse
  • Retirement, to supplement income and to find meaningful work

Common concerns

Whether mature workers are voluntary or involuntary career changers, they often share common concerns:

  • A lack of experience with changing technology
  • A need to update their skills
  • A lack of current work search skills
  • Views about when it is the right time to retire
  • Concern about having enough retirement income
  • Concern about being hired
  • Concern about being too old to make significant changes
  • Concern about being redundant

Retirement

Facing forward

“I tell pre-retirement workshop participants that nobody owes them a job. Sometimes they think they are retirement planning but really they are escape planning. I say this because I really want them to evaluate whether they should leave their job. Until their focus is forward instead of back, it’s really hard to do career counselling with them. When the focus is forward, you can get them thinking about ‘What could I be doing that will generate a life that is better than what I have?’”

—Rein Selles, Retirement/Life Challenge Ltd.

Issues that face the mature worker inevitably overlap with issues related to retirement. Canada does not have a statutory retirement age, but age 65 is used most often in collective agreements and corporate human resources practices.

Many older people make retirement a process, not a single event. A study on the participation of older workers noted a shift toward non-standard work arrangements among older workers, such as self-employment or contract work. This shift suggests that some workers are making a conscious transition toward retirement. Retirement is changing. Not everyone may be working toward it or planning to stop working for financial gain.

Indeed, it seems that career counsellors are shifting focus from helping older workers to retire to helping them keep their jobs or search for new jobs.

The truth about midlife job performance

The aging process can be viewed in terms of change and continuity. The normal aging process unfolds so gradually that most people are not aware of it.

Many of the myths about age actually describe abnormal processes of disease experienced by only a small portion of the older population. People who do not experience disease gradually adapt to the physical changes that occur with age as a normal process.

The difference between the job performance of older and younger workers is statistically insignificant. Variations within an age group far exceed the average differences between age groups.

As a group, mature workers:

  • Can work for personal and financial reasons
  • Are less subject to work-related accidents
  • Can be as productive as younger workers
  • Are capable of learning new technologies
  • Can gain new skills effectively when appropriate training programs are available

Barriers and challenges

In working with clients during their midlife stage, consider these potential barriers and challenges.

Employment practices

Employment practices are sometimes based on common myths about mature workers. Mature workers may have to convince employers they do not fit the stereotypes. You can help older workers prepare to challenge false beliefs. Encourage them to examine their own beliefs about aging and to identify the assets they bring to the workplace.

Personal circumstances

Mature workers who have been laid off or forced into early retirement may be trying to navigate a maze of personal challenges. The percentage of older adults who are healthy is growing, but health problems do increase steadily with age. Cases of chronic illness, functional impairment, and physical disability increase as people live longer. Also, older adults may become caregivers for aging parents, ailing spouses, and dependent grandchildren.

Financial concerns

Older unemployed workers with dependents, a mortgage, and debt may feel anxious about the prospect of financial crisis. The longer they are out of work, the more their resources will be depleted.

Emotional crises

Job loss can be traumatic for people as it may stir up deep feelings of shame and inadequacy.

The loss of a job may cause mature workers to:

  • Lose their sense of identity
  • Lose their sense of self-worth
  • Lower their assessment of their abilities
  • Feel embarrassed about being unemployed, collecting employment insurance, or looking for work
  • Withdraw from friends and family at a time when they most need support

Self-limiting attitudes

Mature workers may need to examine what they believe about themselves to identify and challenge attitudes that work against them.

Examples of self-limiting attitudes include:

  • Tunnel vision. Mature workers who have been in the same work role for many years may have a limited view of their potential. They may lack confidence in moving beyond that previous work role.
  • Fear of risk taking. Some mature workers focus on minimizing risk and maximizing security. The thought of going in any new direction may cause them anxiety about changing established routines for themselves and their families.
  • Age bias. Some mature workers believe they are declining mentally and physically with age. This attitude can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rather than viewing problems in the workplace as related to changes in themselves, their work or their environment, some workers blame their age.
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