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George Anders
George Anders
Senior editor at large, LinkedIn

 

Dr. Denise Foster started her nursing career in the mid-1980s, and in the years since then, she’s encountered plenty of frustrations. America’s overall health kept getting worse, no matter how hard she tried to change lives, one at a time. But today, she’s feeling a lot more upbeat.

She’s a solo entrepreneur now, at age 57, running a Hemp Haven store in Chesapeake, Va. Her visitors range from cancer patients fighting nausea to veterans working through post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She’s transformed herself into a cannabis nurse, advising people on what oils, tinctures or edibles might be best suited for their condition — and then ringing up the sale.

“For 15 years I thought cannabis was a drug of abuse,” Foster says. But a wide sweep of recent clinical research has changed her mind. There’s growing recognition that cannabis-derived medicines have value, she says, and she’s proud to be among the health professionals guiding people toward safe new choices.

Across America, millions of people in the baby boom generation (born between 1946 and 1964) are rethinking their careers, too. The latest edition of LinkedIn’s U.S. Workforce Confidence index highlights three key challenges and opportunities this group faces. Findings reflect survey responses by 10,579 LinkedIn members from Jan. 16 to Feb. 12.

First, age discrimination’s effects can be severe. When boomers seeking work were asked to identify the No. 1 obstacle in their job hunts, 10% cited ageist-related concerns — such as being told “you’re too old,” or “you’re overqualified,” or “you’re too close to retirement.”

Hardly any other factor got so many votes. Concerns such as “lacking the right connections” (7%), too much competition (6%) and “lacking the right skills” (3%) were far less prevalent. The only factors ranked higher were “not enough jobs that meet my criteria” (19%) and the optimistic “nothing stands in the way of my job hunt” (18%).

If anything, the latest Workforce Confidence findings may understate the severity of age-related bias in the job hunting process. The ageism-related responses emerged when survey participants bypassed seven multiple-choice options to write in their personal concerns instead. It’s likely that if ageism had been an explicit option in the multiple choice array, responses would be higher still.

How does this compare with prior academic research? In a 2019 overview paper, University of Alberta nursing professor Donna Wilson and colleagues found a wide range of studies around the world showing that anywhere from 48% to 91% of older people say they’ve encountered age-based bias in some form at some time.

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Second, ageism in the job hunt varies by industry.  As the table above shows, boomers in the Workforce Confidence survey flagged three high-profile industries as ones where unease about ageism is strongest. These are media and communications, finance and the combined fields of software and information technology.

“Advertising is known for its youth obsession,” journalist Kristina Monllos wrote in September 2019, “but that’s to the detriment of aging agency employees.” Her article in Digiday highlighted coded language, such as emphasizing “cultural fit” in job listings, in ways that can be seen as discriminatory.

By contrast, education, public administration and health care all were identified by boomers in the Workforce Confidence survey as fields where job hunters are less likely than average to encounter age-related barriers that they come to regard as the top obstacle to getting desired jobs.

Those three fields also win strong ratings from job-seeking boomers, when asked about their own confidence in finding or holding a job. For members in these industries, their job confidence averaged +46 or better, on a scale that ranges from a low of -100 to a high of +100.

The nonprofit sector is a mixed bag, winning high marks for the relative scarcity of ageism concerns, but coming in below average in terms of members’ confidence in finding or holding a job.

Finally, boomers are looking to rebound by forming their own businesses or pursuing freelance opportunities. Such “go-it-alone strategies” are the favorite option among a wide range of career transformations, ranking ahead of switching industries or job functions, getting more education, or relocating. Starting a business or freelancing is also the one area where boomers were more adventurous than younger generations.

Specifically, the go-it-alone path is getting serious consideration from 53% of baby boomer job seekers. That’s ahead of the 46% to 48% showings for three younger generations: Gen X (born from 1965 to 1980), millennials (born from 1981 to 1996) and Gen Z (anyone born after 1997).

In Evergreen, Colo., for example, 59-year-old H.P. Bunaes has stepped away from a long career in commercial banking to relaunch himself as a consultant specializing in artificial intelligence initiatives for the financial sector. He’s built up a robust network of clients, and he no longer needs to work in big East Coast cities. Instead, Bunaes splits his time between Colorado ski country in the winter and the New England coast in the summer.

“The best thing I ever did was take early retirement” from his old bank, Bunaes says. His advice to others: “Keep your skills up to date. People don’t get obsolete, but if you’re not careful, your skills can become obsolete.”

In Seattle, 57-year-old Tim Watkins is taking smaller — but similar — steps to explore a new career, too. He’s a former Coast Guard officer with a solid day job in corporate protective services. But ever since his 20s, Watkins has been hearing people tell him: “You’ve got a great voice! You should look into radio or voiceover work, or something like that.”

At last, Watkins is giving it a shot. He has set up a recording studio in a spare bedroom and has begun booking paying gigs as the narrator for corporate slide decks and e-learning material. His deep, genial voice, with just a hint of raspiness, makes him sound like a trusted expert.

Watkins knows he’s not the right match for jobs needing a young man’s voice. Even so, he says, “I could see myself doing this into my 70s. Pharma companies need voiceover work from people like me. There’s long-term care insurance. Retirement homes — and so on.”

Health care shows up on the Workforce Confidence survey as one of the industries that may be more welcoming for older talent — which is exactly what Denise Foster, the cannabis nurse, has found.

Foster has read the scientific journals about treating PTSD. She knows which cannabis products get flagged when employees take drug tests, and which ones don’t. In the fast-changing, chaotic cannabis economy, she stands out as the medical professional who takes longer to understand her clients’ needs, and to guide them toward the right solution

Being recognized for her expertise — built up over many years — has become a huge source of pride. “Customers open up to me,” Foster says. “I get referrals from nurse anesthetists and cardiologists. Even dentists send patients my way.”

Workforce Confidence Index methodology

LinkedIn’s Workforce Confidence Index is based on a quantitative online survey distributed to members via email every two weeks. Roughly 5,000 U.S.-based members respond each wave. Members are randomly sampled and must be opted into research to participate. Students, stay-at-home partners and retirees are excluded from analysis so we can get an accurate representation of those currently active in the workforce. We analyze data in aggregate and will always respect member privacy. Data is weighted by engagement level, to ensure fair representation of various activity levels on the platform. The results represent the world as seen through the lens of LinkedIn’s membership; variances between LinkedIn’s membership & overall market population are not accounted for.

Correction: (8/31/2021) Gen Z data in this article mistakenly included respondents who had chosen not to specify their age. This overcount may have skewed findings for Gen Z.

Neil Basu and Alex Gunther from LinkedIn Market Research contributed to this article.

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