by Jean Baur
Among the common myths I hear over and over in my work as a career counselor is "I can't get a job anywhere because I am too old."
If you're a baby boomer like me, you were raised to believe that the worst thing you could say is those two terrible words: "I can't." So when I hear these phrases from my clients (who have been downsized after very successful careers), I tell them the story of my client -- we'll call him "Bill" -- who groaned.
Bill comes into my office, stunned, unable to believe that after 24 years at a leading pharmaceutical firm, he's been let go. We go through the initial process: I explain the details of his outplacement services, as he tells me about his work and how he was notified that he was no longer needed. We talk a bit about his goals -- what he would like to do -- and then I go over the materials that he'll need to support his search.
As Bill and I get to know each other, and get his resume completed, I discover that he, like me, loves tennis. He's been playing longer than I have, and we interrupt our discussions about recruiters or Internet postings with updates on our latest games. I'm thinking to myself that it's really good that he's active as that will help him in the interview process. And the physical and mental challenges of tennis will keep him sharp.
Bill is worried about interviewing since he hasn't done it in more than a quarter century, and he's not sure how he'll be perceived. Under this concern I sense the age issue and ask him directly if he's worried about age discrimination. He says that he is but that he really wants to continue working. As he puts it: "I'm way too young to sit at home."
I never ask my clients their age, but Bill tells me that he's 65 and would like to work for at least five more years. So we begin drilling the answers to typical interview questions, and I make sure that his answers are clear, concise, and include a selling point or result when possible. He gets pretty good at responding, and I'm beginning to feel that he may do all right.
Then one day as Bill joins me at the small, round table in my office, I notice that he groans as he sits down.
"Hey," I say to him, "what was that?"
"What was what?"
He bursts out laughing. "Oh, I played an extra set of tennis last night and can barely move."
"Up you go," I tell him. "Come back into the office and sit down without groaning."
"You heard me."
He sees by my face that I'm serious, so he humors me and gets up and sits down again in the chair, this time with no creaks or moans. I thank him, and then we talk about the power of first impressions and that we "mature" workers (as I like to call myself), have to be especially careful to come across as energetic, up-to-date and motivated. Maybe a 25-year-old can slump in the chair, but not someone over 50.
Bill gets this concept and never groans again. He sits up straight and leans slightly forward -- a great way to show interest and motivation. Before long he is interviewing, and his strategy is to take any interview anywhere although he really doesn't plan to relocate. So one week he's out on the West Coast interviewing with a new biotech firm, and the next he's in New England meeting with a well-known pharmaceutical company, and with practice, his interviewing improves.
He and I go over the questions he was asked, any areas that gave him trouble, and soon he has an offer from a local company. We celebrate this great news and are both relieved that for now his search is over. He does well with this company, but a year later, has a better offer from another company and decides to take that. As far as I know he's still there, happily working.
When you look carefully at age, especially as it relates to looking for a job, I believe three basic issues arise. The first is your chronological age, which you can't do much about. The second is how current you are in your field, and the third is the overall impression you make. Let's look at the second and third issues to see what you can do if you're a mature worker in job search.
To ensure you're current in your field, network with people in your industry and attend professional meetings so that you're aware of new trends, new technology, etc. Through unemployment benefits (Department of Labor), you may be able to get a grant or tuition waiver so that you can get additional training if you need it. (This benefit varies state by state. In New York State, for example, you'd go to Unemployment Insurance Benefits Online and then click on either "Career Service Locations" or "Workforce Professional Tools" to get the contact information for the nearest One-Stop Career Center). You can also find One-Stop Career Centers and other workforce services. Or speak to your local unemployment counselor. Another way to find out what training you may need would be to shadow someone for a day so that you learn the critical issues of a new function or industry.
The third issue, the impression you make, is exactly what Bill and I were working on together. We create an image of a person in a fantastically short amount of time -- probably 3-5 seconds. So your posture, gesture, voice, and facial expression all contribute to that initial snapshot. Of course what you wear and your overall grooming are part of this picture, so I tell my clients to ask someone they trust to give them feedback on their hairstyle, clothes, and other aspects of appearance. It's important to look up-to-date and age appropriate. So if you're a 50-year-old woman, and are wearing your teenaged daughter's clothes, you may appear uncomfortable about your age.
Interviewing is a dance -- an exchange of impressions and information -- and our function as job-seekers is to do everything we can to show that we fit in and can help solve the problems facing the company. It's also important to remember that no one bats 1,000 and that rejection (and ideally learning) is part of the process.
So don't start off by telling yourself that you'll never get hired again, don't groan when you sit down, and fasten your seatbelt as this is an unpredictable process. And use tennis or volunteering or baking a cake for a neighbor as ways to keep yourself motivated and balanced while you implement your search, remembering that you're working toward an important goal: the adventure and satisfaction of a new job.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Have you seen all our career and job resources for older workers? Go to: Job and Career Resources for Mature and Older Job-Seekers (Including the Baby Boomers).