Arruda worked for a short time at Whole Foods in 2010, though the job didn’t prove to be a good fit. When the one after that didn’t work out either, Arruda suddenly felt as if she’d exhausted all her options. Yet she didn’t have enough money to retire on, and she was years away from being eligible for Social Security. “I was almost 55 and wasn’t sure what else I could do,” she says. “Remember, I’d been working since I was 14. I’d never been unemployed. I never thought I’d be one of those able-bodied, intelligent people who would be out of work. But then it became real. To be 55 and not know if I was ever going to work again, I cried for days.”
While collecting unemployment, Arruda participated in a program to update her computer skills and took other classes, such as how to write a better resume. The program was run by Operation A.B.L.E., a Boston-based nonprofit that has provided training and employment services for older workers and others since 1982 (the acronym stands for Ability Based on Long Experience). Feeling more prepared, Arruda then applied to employers close to home, including Harvard’s residential dining services. She was hired by the university about two years ago. She now oversees lunch and dinner at Leverett House, the largest single residence hall on campus, and is surprised at her good fortune. “I thought I had reached my zenith being a manager at Shaw’s,” she says. “I’m very happy, and I’m not going anywhere soon.”
Arruda was quick to polish her job skills, but for many older workers, the hardest thing can be “to realize they are not going to get into their former jobs and that they need help,” says Joan Cirillo, Operation A.B.L.E.’s president and CEO. Meanwhile, she adds, “it’s a constant education process to persuade front-line supervisors who make the actual hiring decisions to take the chance on a more mature candidate.” Maybe managers are worried the applicant will be overqualified, maybe they’re concerned about giving instruction to people who could be their parents, or maybe they just suspect older folks are too far behind in technology and social media. Whatever the preconception, Cirillo says, “we know that there are mature workers who can run circles around some younger employees, but it will continue to be a challenge for many older applicants to get rehired.”
A number of private and public programs such as Operation A.B.L.E. are available for older workers seeking new jobs or opportunities. ReServe Greater Boston, for example, helps match professionals who are 55 and older with nonprofits and other organizations that could use their expertise in exchange for a modest stipend. State-sponsored One-Stop Career Centers across Massachusetts offer training opportunities, resume assistance, job clubs, and other services for workers of any age. Many community colleges offer courses in computer literacy and other job skills that can help bring older workers up to speed for today’s workplace. “Every individual needs to think about the next step in their careers, not when they’re 60 but when they’re 40 or 50,” says Boston College’s Pitt-Catsouphes. “It’s like fitness: If you don’t think about exercising until you’re 70, you’ve missed your opportunity.”
DENISE DABNEY HAS CERTAINLY made a point to keep her skills up-to-date. After graduating from Girls’ Latin School in Boston and Brandeis University, then working for more than a decade as a teacher, she returned to Brandeis to earn a master’s in human services in 1981 and eventually her PhD. “I wanted to be in a position where I could influence policy change,” she says. After holding positions in both the private and public sectors, she now works for an agency that focuses on employment-support services.
“I enjoy my current job and I can’t ever envision myself not working at all,” says Dabney. “But at times I’d like to have more time to do [other things], especially helping to mentor young people. I’m a working-class girl who has had some success, for which I am very grateful, and I’d like to help others achieve the same.”
She and other boomers may still get what they want. By the sheer size and clout of their generation, they have developed a reputation for forcing changes on how things have been done. “Baby boomers are so used to having their own way,” says Conny Doty, a 60-year-old Jamaica Plain boomer who directs the city jobs agency where Dabney works. “Everything we touched made way, but not necessarily today’s labor market.”
It’s not inconceivable that the baby boomers will force the American workplace to change, too. After all, roughly 10,000 boomers turn 65 every day — and will continue at that pace for about another decade and a half. “Maybe [employers] don’t want one of the best educated and highly skilled generations ever to just walk out the door,” Doty says. “The labor market and the boomer generation just need to more fully figure out how to accommodate each other.”
Phil Primack is a writer and editor in Medford. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.