Job Hunting at 50 - Part One: The Age Issue

Job Hunting at 50 - Part One: The Age Issue

Next month I turn 49, one year away from the big “Five Oh” and most certainly at least half way through my life span. Although this is a time for reflection on achievements and how to build for a shorter future, I’m often reminded of the fact that I’m now also 4 years past the age where I’m considered employable in Japan.

Given that several years back I took out a home mortgage that runs until I’m 85, and I’m not unique in that respect, I consider that I’m lucky to be self employed and somewhat in control of my own destiny and finances. However, I shudder to think what goes through the mind of a conservative and emotionally dependent salary person when he/she gets laid off at the age of 50 or more – something which happens with increasing regularity in this age of competition from China and restructuring. Even with the current economic boom and the resulting labor shortage – according to recent data from the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, those in highest demand are people in their early 20’s and aged between 35 and 44.

The sad fact is that age discrimination in employment is not illegal in Japan. Even if you’re fit and capable, companies will find excuses not to interview you once you hit 45. Recently I have had a number of candidate screening interviews with senior Japanese business people who for various reasons are out looking for jobs in their late 50’s. The most common scenario is that the person has been working overseas for 10+ years and has had to return to Japan to look after aged parents or was passed over for promotion and has got the message that their career isn’t going to go much further. Others are from industries which have been battered by competition from China or by foreign competition and are being restructured.

Older candidates, and especially those from larger firms, can have pretty big egos – inevitable in a seniority-based culture, and the initial conversation frequently starts with some CEO or board director aspirations. But on probing, I find that the person’s concerns can quickly descend to just simply getting a job. Fear and panic are not far below the calm exterior and if allowed to take over will cause Maslow’s hierarchy of needs kicks in. You may recall that this mechanism puts food and safety first, and forward thinking in the back seat. This is a real shame, because with a little preparation and some patience and risk-taking, there are ways to rebuild a damaged career and still become successful in one’s twilight years.

But lack of confidence is not something that can be changed overnight, and Japan is full of people who have given in to their internal panic and have accepted second best – ending their careers with a whimper and not a bang. Indeed, I was once told by an outplacement manager that for workers fired in their 50’s, most people are so shocked that it takes about 6-9 months of intensive counseling to help them recover and to want to start looking for a meaningful job again.

But at some point, most people do start to come around to the fact that their world has changed and that it’s time to try something new. Usually I will start a career counseling session by asking the person about their values. If I sense that money is a key concern, then I focus on their willingness to take a risk and start a business – helping them down that path with tips and introductions. If however, the major focus is getting back their self respect after being treated badly, then I focus on how they can get a steady job. Although this might mean restarting at a lower initial salary, at least it will provide a direction to eventual emotional and financial recovery.

What if you’re turning 46 but are still gainfully employed? You can’t turn back the hands of time, but you can insulate yourself. There are two main ways. Firstly, you can gather your knowledge base and finances and be ready just in case the hammer ever falls. With the appropriate resources, you have a reasonable chance to starting a business either by yourself or with friends. But as the old saying goes, succeeding is more a result of who you know not what you know. So the second step to insulation is to build up the one personal asset which above all else improves as you age – your personal network!

I will talk about the importance of networking in more detail next week.



I agree with this completely. My mother is 49 and she quit her job once she got married since my dad is a businessman and we have traveled to several different countries. Our family recently moved back to Tokyo because my dad was relocated again and my mother decided to venture out and look for a job.
She has a lot of skill and speaks english and some spanish yet noone hires her even as a telephone operator. All the jobs that hire her are waitress jobs and hard labor. It irritates me how Japan is so biased against older people.