The Gray Ceiling: How Old is Too Old to Work?

Senior business people
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What is the gray ceiling? The gray ceiling is a term used to describe the age discrimination that many older job seekers and employees face when they are job searching or seeking a promotion. Even though employers aren’t supposed to discriminate based on how old you are, getting hired can be a challenge when you’re considered an “older” worker.

More Jobs for Older Workers

According to the House of Representatives, when it voted unanimously to repeal the Social Security earnings cap, removing the limit on earnings enabled more older Americans than ever to work.


Recent articles pitched working at McDonald's, working at Target, and other opportunities to ring cash registers and wait on customers. These options were targeted towards seniors who were partially retired, unemployed, or returning to the workforce. There are many other part-time job options for senior citizens who wish to remain active in the workforce.

Percentage of Older People in the Workforce

About 18.8% of people over 65 worked in 2016, according to the Pew Research Council. The National Council on Aging reports that, by 2019, over 40% of people over age 55 are expected to be working. This will constitute 25% of the U.S. labor force.

Many of these workers are continuing careers in management, finance, healthcare, and other professional areas. For older employees returning to work or working part-time, food preparation and service, followed by farming and sales (including retail) were typical types of employment.

Are these the occupations that older workers prefer, because of the flexible hours and the part-time opportunities? Or would seniors rather use the skills learned in a lifetime of professional employment to continue their career?

When Age Discrimination Starts

Is it only senior citizens who are being funneled into employment requiring low-level skills and lacking in compensation?

Robert, for example, 60, sent out over 350 resumes in the year and a half it took him to find a management position. Ramona, as another example, 59, is bilingual, computer literate, and has extensive experience. She would love to continue working but says "If employers do not give us a chance to prove that we can perform as well as anybody else that is younger, how are we going to continue being in the workforce?"

George, 58, has an MBA and a wealth of experience. He has been seeking employment since January and finally has a couple of interviews scheduled. Della was told by a District Manager that women in their 40's couldn't handle lifting heavy fitness equipment and have mood swings.

Despite that, she was hired for the job "until he could find a young, strong man" and successfully turned the business around.

In addition to the obvious age discrimination issues, what is happening in the workplace? Joyce Lain Kennedy, career columnist and author, said in one of her columns, "Older workers continue to have a steep hiring curve to climb."  From the job seekers perspective, Della says, "It will be wonderful when the people of this world come to realize that there is nothing wrong with being older.

It is a privilege and an honor."

Job seekers are reporting age discrimination beginning as early as the mid-thirties. How can this be addressed? What options are there for those of us considered "old" by hiring managers and employers?

The biggest issue, and one which is hard to address, is the perception that older workers are not as capable or as qualified as younger counterparts. This is actually nothing new. Joyce Lain Kennedy, in her column, quotes the 1943 "Men's Guide to Hiring Women" which reports that older women who have never contacted the public are inclined to be cantankerous and fussy"!

I remember working for a major greeting card company in the 1970's and having "unofficial" guidelines about not hiring anyone too old (or too young). The ideal card merchandiser was a mom with kids in school who only wanted part-time employment.

Hopefully, as the shortage of qualified workers continues to increase, employers will, by necessity if not by choice, become more flexible.

Strategies for Handling Age Discrimination

In the interim, what can those of us, some who are barely considered middle-aged, do to get successfully hired for a job that matches our skills and experience? Joyce Lain Kennedy's Resumes for Dummies provides suggestions:

  • On your resume, limit your experience to 15 years for a managerial job, ten years for a technical job, and five years for a high-tech job.
  • Leave your other experience off your resume or list it without dates in an “Other Experience” category.
  • Consider using a functional resume rather than a chronological resume.

Job Interviews for Dummies, also by Joyce Lain Kennedy, recommends emphasizing the positive when interviewing:

  • Project yourself as cheerful and flexible and back that up with proof of your skills and success.
  • Review the benefits of older workers - commitment to a career, hands-on experience, a track record of success, stable, realistic expectations - and think about how they apply to you.
  • Use storytelling techniques to back up your claims of these skills.

Kennedy's suggestions are seconded by Ray, 58, who has successful job searched three times over the last ten years. Ray suggests focusing on your skills in your cover letter and mitigating the visibility of age in your cover letter and on your resume. According to Ray, the key is getting the interview - once the employer is impressed with your ability to solve their problems, they will not care if you have gray hair down to your knees.

Job Search Advice for Older Workers: Job Search Tips for Older Job Seekers | Resume Tips for Older Job Seekers | Cover Letter Tips for Older Job Seekers