Age and other -isms

I have had a number of people recently express concern about looking for work
and being over 50.

The questions range from the very broad
to the very specific:

  • Is age-ism an issue?
  • How do I compete with younger people for jobs?
  • Should I avoid using a photo in my online profile?

The New York Times recently published a series of opinion articles on being over 50 in the workforce.  Opinions were mixed. 

I can’t help but also note that Circuit City laid off all their “higher paid” employees – the older more experienced ones.  Did anyone else notice how much more annoying and frustrating it was to shop at Circuit City recently?  I guess so, they went out of business.

And Harvard Business Publishing just noted a study on air traffic controllers, which showed those over 50, with lots of experience, actually did better on more complex simulations, than their younger counterparts.

It’s a tough game, but opinions are mixed on whether older workers just cost more, or if they are worth more.  But what is true at any age, but perhaps more true if you are over 50, is that right now you need to do more than ever to stand out.

Companies are being really picky

Right now in this period of economic gloom, there are more people looking for work, so companies can be pickier than ever. 

I would imagine that all the “ism’s” are more prevalent when there are fewer jobs to be had, whether it’s age-ism, sexism, racism, never-been-at-a-small-company-ism, never-been-at-a-large-company-ism, never-executed-a-successful-exit-while-being-tall-ism…

So what can you do? 

Let’s focus on the topic of age, but the approach I’ll describe works for anyone wanting to stand out in a positive way, whether or not you are battling an -ism.

If you are fighting a real –ism, like age-ism, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible, it just means it’s harder.  You have to do more things on purpose.  You’ll need to source more opportunities and be more qualified.

If you are competing for a job and want to project the right image:

1) Be the best candidate
2) Be the most prepared
3) Be the best marketed
4) Be Current
5) Have energy

I have hired people in their 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s who showed themselves to excel in the above points.

Let me address points 4 and 5 first as they are more specific to the age topic.

4. Be Current. 

The problem with age is not just the number, it’s if you come across as “old” in your attitude, your actions, and your appearance.  The company needs to do business today, and is looking for people to help build the future.

The deck may in fact be stacked against you if the company has a policy to push out people over 50.  You’ll  need to work even harder to neutralize a potential age objection. 

But the point is, at any age:

If you do not come across as current, you appear less qualified. 

It’s as simple as that. 

Current Behaviors:

What you talk about.  Make sure you have fresh professional stories.  Whatever your offer is to a company, make sure you tell stories that highlight that offer in the context of today’s business environment.  Use your network.  Tell your stories to young people.  Get their feedback on what seems interesting and exciting, and what seems old and boring.

Have an online presence.  If you are not versed and present in the online social media communities you will appear out of date.   Check out my prior post on this topic for more on this. 

Be someone that people want to spend time with.   A big part of winning a job interview is the social part.  You need to fit in socially with the people you will work with. (This is equally true for young people going for big jobs where everyone is older.)  You don’t need to pretend to be young, but you need to be comfortable in, and add interest to the world you are joining. 

Join non-profits, or community activities and spend time with younger people.  Be comfortable and engaged for real, and you will come across as comfortable and real in your interviews. 

Current Appearance: 

It matters what you look like.  I am not talking about a beauty contest, I am talking about looking current and showing an effort.

Make sure your appearance is up to date.  If someone walks in with a hairstyle, eyeglass frames, or clothes from 20 years ago what impression do you think that gives?

It’s certainly not current, quality, or well managed.  Why would I want to hire someone to take care of and represent a piece of my business who puts no quality or management into how they present themselves.

Men: grey hair is fine as long as you have a current-style hair cut.  Go to a real hair dresser, then go to a department store and let them dress you, and get new glasses. And men over 45, if you grew facial hair in your 20’s to look older, let me break the news to you — it is still working. 

(One more thing.  Men: if you don’t want grey hair, please go to the hair salon.  If you think it’s embarrassing to go to the salon, at least make sure to take a mirror outside in full daylight and check out your home dye-job, and then decide which is more embarrassing.)

Women: Make sure your hair style and makeup are up to date.  Get your make-up done professionally every 2-4 years.  Styles change, and you change.  If you’ve never done this, it’s free at any department store.  Same goes for women on the eye-glasses and clothes.  Anything you have had for 20 years needs to go. 

5. Have energy: 

Age doesn’t matter if you have real energy.  Physical energy, mental energy and social energy.  You need to show you are in the game fully.  If you show up “old”, it’s not the age-ism that will limit you, it will be your own lack of energy. 

You need to be as ambitious about the job as anyone.  If you come across as un-committed and with no enthusiasm, it’s not your age that is in your way, it is your attitude.

…OK, now here’s the stuff that applies to everybody.

1. Be the best candidate

The simple way around any “ism” is to be the best candidate.  If you are not the best candidate, your age isn’t the problem, your qualifications are.  Make sure you continue to develop yourself so you can go into an interview as “the best”. 

2. Be the most prepared – start doing the job!

One of the most impressive things you can do is to start doing the job in the interview.  Know enough about the job before the interview and come in with ideas, plans, proposals, and even deliverables.  Make them feel like they can’t live without you by doing the job impressively as part of your interview.

3. Be the best marketed

Make sure your marketing package is complete.  Your resume needs to tell a compelling story.  You don’t need to put all your experience on your resume.  Put the things on your resume that you are most proud of, get the most energy talking about and trigger your best stories.

You need a clearly defined “offer”.  Be specific about what you offer.  What do you DO?

Are you a planner, communicator, organizer, creator?  Think about what is common to what you have done over and over again in all your jobs – what makes you stand out from all the other people who have similar skills and job titles on their resume? Make sure that comes across.

You should also write articles about your area of expertise, publish references, and case studies of your work to reinforce yourself as a stand-out candidate.

Your photo: There are mixed views on this.  Some believe strongly that you shouldn’t use a photo because it presents an opportunity for discrimination.  You need to make your own strategic choice on this.

The key thing I want to emphasize about a profile photo – make sure it’s a good one.  If you are concerned you look “old” in your photo, and that it will be a liability you have a few options.  1) Update your look as described above.  2) Get a professional photo that makes you look interesting, open and engaging.  3) Crop the photo in an interesting way that is less revealing of what you actually look like. 

In my book interesting, open, and engaging with grey hair is way better than young-looking, boring, and low quality.

4) Of course your other choice is to not use a photo. On one hand you need to consider the possibility discrimination, but on the other hand, showing no photo could also cause discrimination. 

No photo could say either you are hiding something, you don’t know how to upload a photo into your profile, you do not follow though to complete things you do, or your are not enthusiastic about connecting with people.  None of those are good for a job search!   Decide your strategy and if it is to use a photo, do it well.

If these things sound like changes you don’t want to make, that is fine unless you want to get full consideration professionally.  If you want to stand out, and be current and relevant, you need to do things on purpose to stand out, be current, and relevant.  

The best way to overcome any -ism is by being the most qualified, and by presenting those qualifications in a more compelling way than all the other qualified people. 

I am not yet over 50.  But I’m a girl.  I have faced many times in my career where being female stacked the deck against me.  My approach has always been to ignore that part, and any possible associated -ism, and to just focus on being the best candidate, and doing more things on purpose to stand out and win.

The only other choice is to stay stuck, so you migth as well give it a try.


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