Think those decades of experience alone are enough to earn you that new job, client or promotion? Think again. In the cutthroat 21st century business world, the saying "age before beauty," doesn’t necessarily apply.
"The truth is, image matters even more in bad economic times," says University of Texas economist Daniel Hamermesh, Ph.D., author of the new book "Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People are More Successful." "In good times, employers will take whoever they can get, but in bad times they can pick and choose. And by and large, they tend to choose people who are better looking."
At a time when unemployment remains high and aging professionals are trying to either re-enter the work force or hold onto jobs alongside much younger colleagues, a youthful, healthy image is more important than ever, say career counselors, corporate headhunters and economists. And in Colorado – considered the "fittest" state in the nation – the pressure is ultra-high. Well aware of this reality, baby boomers are flocking to plastic surgeons, joining the gym and shaving off pounds in hopes of boosting their competitive edge.
"I hear it almost on a daily basis from patients," says Dr. Paul Zwiebel, a Highlands Ranch plastic surgeon who – like his colleagues across the country — has seen a significant uptick in business in the past 18 months, as jobs have begun to open up. "People feel that in order to compete for a job or even for job retention, they have to maintain a youthful look."
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 1.9 million people age 55 and older were looking for work in 2012, the lowest number since March 2009. Trouble is, 7.5 million people age 25 to 54 were also looking for jobs that month, and statistics consistently show that the older the applicant, the longer the job hunt. On average, according to BLS, people 55 to 64 spend 57 weeks looking for employment while those 25 to 34 look for about 34 weeks.
"Older white males in particular have a lot of difficulty finding a job," says Kaila Wilkes, an alumni career counselor at University of Denver. "Employers might think, ‘Well he was making a higher salary than I want to pay, or he might leave sooner than I would like, or perhaps he has some health problems that could increase our premium.’"
In this environment, Wilkes says, an updated wardrobe, freshened hair color, and leaner a frame can’t hurt.
The Beauty Premium
Study after study confirms that, right or wrong, good looks pay when it comes to landing a job or climbing the corporate ladder.
One 2010 Newsweek survey of 202 corporate hiring managers found that 47 percent believe an unattractive but qualified candidate will have a harder time getting hired. Fifty-nine percent advised that job seekers spend as much time and money "making sure they look attractive" as on sharpening that resume. Eighty-four percent said they believe bosses would hesitate before hiring a qualified job candidate who "looked much older" than his or her co-workers.
Another study, by Hamermesh, found that workers with below-average looks tend to earn about 9 percent less while those with above average looks make 5 percent more than their plain-Jane counterparts.
This corporate infatuation with youth and beauty is leading many to go under the knife with their careers in mind. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgery, procedures are up 5 percent since 2010, with facelifts and eyelid surgeries among the top procedures, and Botox and facial fillers (intended to erase deep wrinkles) soaring in popularity, particularly among men.
"I know it is illegal for employers to base their hiring and firing decisions on age, but that can be danced around pretty easily," says William, a 58-year-old oil and gas industry professional who recently had an eyelift to make his aging, puffy eyes look more youthful. After a brief stint of retirement, he recently started job hunting again and believes his new look, and the increased confidence he now has, are working in his favor. "They’re probably thinking I have a good 10 or 15 years ahead of me for their company."
Several of Zwiebel’s patients interviewed for this story said they turned to the knife or needle in hopes of maintaining respect in an increasingly youth-dominated workplace.
"I’d like to think I am wrong about my culture, but I don’t think I am," said one 60-year-old female trial lawyer, who recently had a face lift. "I want to work another seven or eight years and you cannot be a tottering old gray-haired lady and be taken seriously in the court room."
Another 48-year-old medical office manager had breast augmentation, an eyelift and extensive dental work and says no doubt it helped her land a job after a divorce forced her back into the work force amid a recession.
"Looks really do matter," she says. "They can open a lot of doors."
Fat hurts, fitness helps
Weight can also have a huge impact, with studies showing that thinner people get hired faster, make more money, and are more likely to get raises and promotions. One 2004 study estimated that, over a 40-year-career, workers who are heavier than average make on average $100,000 less before taxes. And, according to the recent Newsweek poll, two-thirds of business managers say they believe their colleagues would hesitate before hiring a job candidate that is significantly overweight.
Internet Technology exec Martin Gossen, 50, believes it.
As someone who topped out at 360 pounds and lost 130 in the past two years, he has seen the weight-bias issue from the perspective of both "fat guy" and employer, he says.
"Even I, as a fat person, couldn’t get past the stigma," he says, noting that, if forced to make a choice he probably would have chosen a thin candidate over an equally qualified overweight candidate. "I thought it showed discipline and good work-life balance. Fair or not, you are automatically perceived to be lazy if you are fat."
Gossen said while he has always been well-respected in his field, his weight absolutely impacted his business life. When meeting a prospective client for coffee he’d have to awkwardly request they not sit in a too-tight booth. When asked to go on a business ski trip or bike ride he’d have to politely decline. All that has changed now.
"I am not an outlier anymore," he says, noting that his weight loss has also improved his health and bolstered his self-esteem. "That has definitely created more professional opportunities for me."
Ted Kennedy, 55, founder of Boulder-based CEO Challenges – which arranges athletic competitions for CEOs – says that in Colorado, perhaps more than anywhere, physical fitness is inextricably tied to business success.
His CEO clients tell him their rigorous daily workouts give them more energy, allow them time to solve problems, and enable them to deal with stress better. And they’re looking for employees who do the same.
"If you are interviewing for a job here, chances are that the person you are interviewing with is fit. They are going to expect you to have the energy to carry out your job and then some, and if you don’t appear healthy they’ll assume you won’t be able to compete against all the other young, fit people here," he says. "It’s tough enough getting old, but getting old and being unfit is a bad combination. I wouldn’t hire an unfit baby boomer."
Sizzle versus substance
Denver headhunter Jordan Greenburg, of Pinnacle Source Inc., says most of his corporate clients are "critically attuned" to the way that prospective employees present themselves physically, and for those in the baby boomer generation the stakes are definitely higher.
"If you are my age and you are not presenting yourself as someone who is taking pride in the way you are managing your daily affairs from a physical standpoint you are going to be in real trouble," he says.
But he and career counselor Wilkes both stress that, while youth and image matter, they aren’t everything.
When Newsweek polled business managers they, notably, rated looks third among a list of nine attributes they look for in an employee. Experience and confidence still rated 1 and 2.
And, as Wilkes notes, baby boomers have the benefit of experience, contacts and professionalism behind them, tend to have a good work ethic, and typically aren’t distracted by the family matters young parents deal with.
Throw all that in with a sharp look and a good first impression, and you have the whole package.
"Yes, sizzle matters," Greenburg says. "But at the end of the day, no matter what your age, it’s still about substance."