Recently I was talking with a new friend of mine who was confiding in me about her struggle to find a new job.
Jane had been laid off six months ago after working in the IT department of a company for more than 15 years. With a tear in her eye she told me that she can’t prove it but felt she was being discriminated against because of her age. Despite having relevant experience and sending out dozens of resumes, the 62-year-old believes prospective employers don’t want to give her an interview let alone a job.
I nodded in sympathy but also in agreement. You will not find a manager who will openly admit to ageism for fear of legal repercussions, but bias against older Americans re-entering the work force is palpable. Often leaders are afraid to offer these seasoned applicants positions because of stereotypes. They fear such candidates will be slow, cranky, out of touch or chronic complainers.
Here is what I told my friend Jane and what I would tell anyone who is older trying to enter the workforce:
1. Take time to reflect.
Older Americans find themselves navigating the evolving tide of the new digital-centric workplace where the previous ules of engagement no longer apply. The first piece of advice I give someone in this situation to take this time to evaluate what he or she wants in the next job.
Whether you were unexpectedly downsized from a prior employer or realized a few months into retirement that not working isn’t for you, your next position will most likely be one of your last. So make it count and be sure it offers you a level of fulfillment.
If you spent your career as a systems analyst and hated the last several years of performing such work, chances are you will hate this type of job once again, maybe even more vehemently.
Why not take the time to think about what truly excites you or sparks your interest? If you love people but your former job as an accountant did not put you front and center with the public, maybe this is the time to think about embarking on a career in sales, hospitality or retail.
2. Put aside biases.
Focus less on the biases of others and put aside any prejudices they exhibit. Just like younger bosses may have preconceived notions about older employees, more seasoned applicants may have preconceived notions and biases against younger bosses.
Do phrases such as “she hasn’t been around long enough to know how things work” or "too young to know better" ring a bell? If so, chances are you or someone you converse with have been practicing a form of ageism.
And perhaps your biases will come out in subtle and not-so-subtle ways during the interview process and a potential new boss could pick up on this. Put aside your preconceived perceptions and plunge into the interview process with an open mind and an accepting attitude.
3. Presentation matters.
Older applicants, freshen up your presentation. This applies to resumes as well as physical appearance. If you haven’t updated your resume in three or four years (or longer), it might contain outdated words and phrases that might not resonate with the 20-something or 30-something who may be screening it for relevancy.
Does your resume use the word “synergies?” That word that has fallen out of favor and simply substituting “teamwork” or “cooperation” might be more effective.
Instead of using “robust,” what about the words “durable” and “powerful” instead? They are more direct thus more relatable.
Does your resume boast of your Microsoft office prowess? If so nix this. Computers are not new to the workplace and skill in this program is almost a given at this point. Unless that program is specified in the job posting, including it may seem out of touch.
Employers are also most interested in what you have done recently so if you have enjoyed a long career history, focus on the last 10 to 15 years only.
Whether you’re young, middle aged or older, your physical appearance matters. Being of a certain age doesn’t give you carte blanche to ignore your image. You convey visual cues through your grooming and wardrobe as well as your energy level, confidence and professionalism. Dressing appropriately does not mean pandering to stereotypes but rather that you are aware of the world and current times.
4. Consider venturing out on your own.
Your professional experience may make you an excellent candidate for stepping out on your own and working as an independent consultant, especially if the bulk of your experience is in one specific industry or field. Although becoming a consultant requires a healthy dose of courage, you will not only give a company the benefit of your knowledge but still have flexibility and a higher level of autonomy.
Before embarking on the next chapter of your career, take time to reflect on what will fulfill you, then put aside any prejudices or preconceived notions you may have. Finally, put your best foot forward and take the leap. There is an organization out there that will value your experience and work ethic.