Growing Older and Less Employable

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While life expectancy keeps climbing and some governments are raising retirement ages, Israeli men in or past middle age are increasingly hard put to hold down a job or to find an employer who values their skills and experience.

Employment rates for Israeli men drop from 74.5% in the 50-54 age bracket to 67.6% for ages 55-59 and just 54.4% for ages 60-64, even though the legal retirement age for men is 67. And Israel isn't in a bad position globally. The average employment rate for men aged 60-64 in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member states is just 40%.

"We're at the onset of establishing a new class in Israeli society, a class of poor and powerless men mostly aged 40 and up," MK Eitan Cabel (Labor) said this week. He was addressing a conference held to mark his formation, together with MK Erel Margalit (Labor), of a new Knesset caucus aimed at helping 40+ men to find and keep jobs.

The caucus aims to foment a revolution in attitudes about employing of men aged 40 and above, to introduce bills to compensate employers who hire older workers and to put the issue on the public agenda, Cabel said.

"It's absurd that the more education and experience you have, the worse your situation gets," Cabel said, adding, "At the end of the day, the magic word everyone faces is you're 'overqualified.' Seniority and experience become a burden."

While demographers say the proportion of the population that is at least late middle-aged will soar by 2030, employers typically believe individuals who are 45 or older are less capable of adapting to rapidly changing technology and less willing to put in long hours.

Israel is in a relatively good position demographically: Even though the percentage of people aged 65 and over is forecast to jump 30% from 2010 levels, it will be still be a relatively low 13%. In Germany, the rate is expected to reach 289%.

But most OECD countries, Israel included, haven't yet launched adequate programs to deal with the situation.

According to a study released by the Knesset Research and Information Center, the unemployment rate for men in Israel between 55 and 64 in 2011 was 4.2%, compared to an overall unemployment rate of 5.7%. Some experts say the true unemployment rate is much higher, and that the reason for the relatively low figure among older workers is that many have given up. They are no longer actively seeking work, and as a result they are no longer on the unemployment rolls.

The report, compiled by Ori Tal-Spiro, found that average unemployment in OECD countries in 2011 for people aged 55 to 64 was 5.8% - much higher than in Israel, but at 8.2% so was overall unemployment.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett said the job situation for older men had actually improved in Israel in the past decade.

"The percentage of older men with jobs rose from 58.7% in 2000 to 71.6% in 2012. The rate of employment among older women rose during the same period from 35.9% to 55%. There's an increase over the past 12 years, but we can't rest on our laurels," Bennett told the conference.

Cabel, in contrast, noted that anyone who drops out of the workforce finds it hard, if not impossible, to rejoin after reaching 40.

"This fact, combined with a constantly rising life expectancy, could produce an entire class of elderly poor who are dependent on state allowances for decades of their lives," he warned. "This is a social and economic disaster and, in order to avoid it, we must adapt Israel's job market to the progressive economic world and create an entire system that will escort each fired worker through retraining, psychological support, and financial support. This is the only way to bridge the desire for management flexibility and concern for the working man."

On the subject of age discrimination, the Knesset report found that many countries don't merely rely on anti-discriminatory legislation. In Belgium, for example, the government has forged agreements with labor unions requiring employers with more than 20 workers and planning massive layoffs not to disproportionately fire older workers.

Cyprus has launched a PR campaign, called "Gray Hair, Experienced Hands," and in 2010 the British government launched its "Age Positive" campaign aimed at promoting a cultural change in hiring older workers.

Margalit is proposing a law that would do away with mandatory retirement altogether, so that both men and women could stay at their jobs past the current top age of 67. "Life expectancies are rising, the concept of a career is changing and pensions are often insufficient to last all the years after retirement," Margalit said. "The law will enable productive people to keep working and contribute more to their pension plan."

The unemployment office in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum