The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.
NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Need to work longer before retiring? Older worker, beware! A bull's-eye is being stenciled on your back. This can put a crimp in the best-laid plans.
Fifteen percent of the unemployed are over 55. Of those out of work for more than a year, the over 55 represent 45%. This means only about 10% have found another job. These lucky workers though may not be dancing in the streets because most have taken wage cuts. Is it discrimination? There is nothing illegal about hiring someone who isn't a good fit and there are plenty of reasons older workers may not be a good fit, such as being less productive, having dated skills and being averse to change.
Studies show mental abilities to reason peak in the late twenties and early thirties, reflexes and strength start to go around the same time. Verbal fluency is the last to go; it can last into the fifties. Generally productivity starts declining in the thirties.
Banking on experience being a productivity equalizer? A study in Finland found experience-related performance improvements peak at four years. Some speculate that the value of experience is on the decline; the culprit is the Internet. There are plenty of people sharing the tricks of the trade and all it takes is a clickety click.
Speaking of clickety click -- that's another reason productivity in older workers declines. They are less likely to leverage the many productive powers of technology because they don't need it. Who needs to bank online when you can hand write checks, retabulate balances, address envelopes, buy stamps and put them in the post?
A less productive, behind the times worker looking to maintain a salary twice a younger worker's rate are ample reasons for someone not to be a good fit.
So it's not really surprising that older job seekers are finding it tough going. For any midlifer that wants to keep their job, it's important to stay off a layoff short list and out of the boss' termination sights by staying productive and valuable -- earning your keep.
The hard facts of aging may indicate that an older worker can't be as productive due to mental and physical decline, but in not-physically demanding occupations, behaviors will influence productivity more than age. What are those behaviors?
A motivated employee will easily outproduce the clock watcher. Sure, it's the boss's job to motivate, but most missed that class, so it's time to self motivate. Start with the motivating thought that the most productive employees are the winners in the job keepers contest. The trick is this: come to the office and work, not some of the time, all of the time.
Younger employees may be able to reason and move faster, but someone that works their full shift will outperform one that has no qualms about mixing up the workday with a little harmless social networking, a few personal calls and emails, coming to work tired, and chit chat.
Keep skills fresh. If skills are losing their relevance and value, take the initiative to acquire new ones. Don't be an employee that constantly moans about needing to go to a class, or that doesn't know how to do something, when acquiring skills are keystrokes away. There are millions of self-study courses, professional discussion groups, books and classes that can be used to increase anyone's skill value.
If an employer doesn't have an education reimbursement policy, consider it an investment in future earning capacity. If there isn't time to learn new skills at work, that's what weekends and evenings are for. If those hours are normally reserved for personal or family time, think about the alternative of having too much family time because there is no job to go to.
About those weekends and evenings. If the boss needs help meeting a tight deadline, don't wait for him to ask for volunteers, step to the front of the line. When employees make the boss's life easier, their value skyrockets.
Embrace technology. There is no reason older workers can't be proficient with technology when little children are. Technology today is designed to be intuitive for anyone. The only thing separating a child and an adult on the technology score is desire.
Everyone has had a boss that makes her crazy. It may be non-role model-like behaviors or it could be policies the boss finds necessary that employees just don't care for, like wage freezes. Don't become that negative source or squeaky wheel -- the employee malcontent that infects the work environment takes a bite out of everyone's productivity. That will make a boss miserable. Rule #1, never forget who signs your paycheck.
One last thing: the days of getting annual automatic increases are over. Employers pay employees based on the productive value of a job. There are three reasons for this: skills can be dated and less valuable, worker supply for a job position can exceed demand, and low cost competitors can arrive from New Mexico, Montana or Malaysia.
Next time the thought of asking for a raise surfaces, check the local market value of positions similar to your own. You could find you're overpaid. If you are, don't be surprised if one day you are asked to accept a lower wage to stay employed. If that's aggravating, before telling the boss to shove it, take the time to assess how easy or hard it may be for a midlifer to become re-employed and what types of wages other possible employers are offering. It's possible the future could get bleaker.
It's a lot easier to keep a good job than to find another one, especially for the older worker whose stereotype says bad fit in several ways. Stay valuable to the boss and a bullseye won't be stenciled on your back.
If you're one of the many Americans currently looking for work, check out MainStreet's roundup of the Best Companies to Work for in 2012 for some ideas!