Some people turn to career coaches or resume doctors for help finding jobs. Others join networking groups to locate new clients. And then there are those who seek out plastic surgeons to give them an edge.
Brian Bretan wants no one to think that he's run out of steam. The 59-year-old job seeker from Smithtown, N.Y., has had doctors remove the bags under his eyes, give him a fuller head of hair and erase his age spots. Now, he said, "I like the way I look."
He's had two job interviews for pharmaceutical sales positions in the past couple of weeks, and expects to have at least two more in the coming weeks. His confidence is high given that these are his first interviews in more than 30 years. "I haven't hit any disasters yet," he said.
A dicey job market, a growing number of age discrimination complaints and what many perceive as employers' preference for younger workers is making some people rethink how they should look while they're looking.
Some job seekers fight age discrimination by bringing gym bags to interviews.
Others fight discrimination with a knife. Eyelid surgeries, for example, rose 44 percent to 104,426 between 2000 and 2001 for people ages 51 to 64, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
This procedure, which accounts for nearly a third of all cosmetic procedures for the 51-to-64 age group, is especially popular among older job seekers, plastic surgeons say. The average cost for eyelid surgery was $2,544, according to the plastic surgeons group.
Plastic surgery is just one route to youthful looks.
Sales for hair coloring formula Just for Men had double-digit growth when the economy turned sour. And an increasing number of people are whitening their teeth, going to gyms and tanning for professional, rather than personal, reasons.
Botox injections to smooth out wrinkles also have grown sharply, increasing 61 percent from 2000 to 2001, to 191,150 nationwide.
Dr. Bruce J. Nadler, who reduced the bags under Bretan's eyes, said getting plastic surgery for professional reasons has become "run of the mill."
People get Botox injections in their early 20s, eyelid surgeries in their late 30s, and in their 40s visit Nadler to reduce the wrinkles around their eyes and to tighten the skin around their jaws and neck.
Professional reasons are edging out personal ones for cosmetic surgery, he said. Nadler estimates that eyelid surgeries at his practice increased 20 percent in the last couple of years, largely because of the tougher competition for jobs.
Women have traditionally spent more money to look youthful. But in a tight job market, men are ready to spend money to update their looks. Roughly 20 percent of cosmetic surgeries were done on men in 2001, up from 14 percent in 1992, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons says.
Both men and women find themselves increasingly at a disadvantage when they reach 50, or even 40. Age discrimination charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rose 41 percent since 1999, to 19,921 in 2002. A quarter of the allegations were related to hiring.
The job market looks dismal to the unemployed. More than 300,000 people nationwide joined their ranks in February, bringing the U.S. unemployment rate to 5.8 percent.
Nationwide, the unemployment rate for people 50 and older is 4.3 percent. But this does not take into account those who have slipped into retirement, convinced that they can no longer find work. Nor does it count those who have taken "survival jobs" below their professional qualifications, but still seek something better.
Jonathan Rosen, who heads the membership-based New York Unemployment Project on Wall Street, said, "Age discrimination is absolutely rampant," as are other forms of discrimination.
The weak economy gives employers more flexibility, and they're taking advantage of it, he said. The unemployed workers he's seen cannot afford plastic surgery. But they suffer from the same lack of confidence as their more affluent counterparts.
No wonder so many men are coloring their hair or brightening their teeth.
"Guys are out looking for work, and turning to us for a solution," said John Lerch, chief advertising officer for Combe Inc., which makes Just for Men. "Our business is up fairly dramatically in the last two years."
The company tries to specifically reach job seekers in a quarter of its ads. The Just for Men Web site, www.justformen.com, warns that appearance is a "decisive employment factor."
Jim Wallis said his teeth, rather than his hair, needed burnishing. As president of Relational Engineering on Wall Street, a business consulting firm, he said getting new customers keeps his business afloat.
When an especially important sales meeting came up, he called his dentist to whiten his teeth. "Each new work order is significant," he said. "It's about appearance and good presentation."
Wallis was delighted with the $650, hour-long procedure. "I went off the color chart," he said.