The Myth of Staying Employable Past 50!

Many prospects call me and lament their status in today’s job market. “I have just been laid-off for the second time and I am in my 50s. I cannot afford to retire for another 10-15 years because my youngest son has not entered college yet. I do not know where to turn; do you think that you can help me?” is a typical call of resignation I receive more often than I care to count. Although I am based in the Silicon Valley my practice is global; I have clients in 23 countries in many areas of business and industry. So, these calls are almost geo-agnostic.

What drives this mindset is some myth around job losses that occurred during the past several decades, mostly from the manufacturing sector. Conventional wisdom holds that the new economy is an inhospitable place for workers in their 50s or 60s, with full or part-time gigs flipping burgers or as Wal-Mart greeters or worse, are the only avenues available to them. In a recent Wall-Street Journal article Ann Tergesen reports it’s never been better to be an older worker looking for a job. Why? The numbers show that the nightmare scenario simply isn’t true. The 55-and-older demographic is actually the only age group with a rising labor-force participation rate, Ann reports. Not only that, but more than 60 percent of workers age 65 or older have full-time positions, up from 44 percent in 1995. These older workers are increasingly working in well-paid, highly skilled jobs in the professional services industry. They are helped by the overall shift from a manufacturing to a service economy, which has created more jobs in which cognitive skills matter more than physical ability.

The problem facing many white-collar workers is not that they are too old to re-enter the job market, but it is that they have mentally resigned to their fate. Study after study shows little to no relationship between age and productivity. One recent look at workers at a large German insurance firm found that productivity actually rises with age when it comes to more demanding tasks that require deep expertise. Although it is true that young, fresh graduates probably find it easier to get many software programming and coding jobs than do their counterparts in their 50s, these whippersnappers often do not have the maturity and the deep social expertise required in dealing with human-interaction issues that confront those engaged in professional services, such as dealing with customers, irate users, and frustrated suppliers who are not getting paid on time. It is in these areas where technology and social skills intersect that the older workers find their sweet spot.

The other problem with the older generation, too, is that, often, their inertia betrays them in what is required to be agile in today’s job market. I know many clients who come to me after they are already laid-off, despite clear signals for many years that their job was in jeopardy and knowing that their company was slowly heading towards life-support. When they face lay-off at a moribund company they suddenly awaken to their new reality and start panicking about what is on their résumé, building their network, and updating their LinkedIn Profile. At this stage it is almost too late to resuscitate a career.

So, what are some of the rules to observe, especially when you enter that dreaded 50s age group, in your career to keep yourself employable beyond your career “event horizon”? Here are some worth heeding:

  1. Keep track of your career momentum in your current role. If you have not done anything new or different during the past two Annual Review Cycles (APRs) then you are stagnating in your job and you are losing your escape velocity to get out and get yourself another job. Seek a new project, assignment, or ask for a transfer. If your company does not practice APR cycles, create your own for yourself.
  2. Keep your résumé and LinkedIn Profile current and marketable. Merely adding bullets on your résumé without doing anything new is not going to make you more marketable, even when you have a job. Always look for something new to say on your résumé that enhances your appeal to a hiring manager.
  3. Learn how to write a story-telling résumé. Most résumé bullets read like the job description merely written in the past tense. Learn how to tell an Aha! story of accomplishments to amp-up your marketability. For example: Instead of saying, managed two projects and released both on time as required, say, “Upon taking charge realized that both projects were off track and were going to miss the critical 2016 CES (Consumer Electronics Show) deadline. With only five months remaining, mobilized the team with a new charter, got additional funds allocated, and hired experts to fill the skill gaps, beating deadlines on both releases. The new products are now company’s largest revenue generators.”
  4. Become aware of external conditions that drive the welfare of your company. Learn about your competition, your company’s stock price and its trend, its strategic plan, 10-K and 10-Q filings with SEC, etc. This way you will not be blindsided by “sudden” news of lay-offs or cutbacks. You may have stellar APRs, but if your company or BU tanks nobody can keep you!
  5. Constantly expand your network, not just in your own technical and professional areas of work, but also in adjacent areas. Recently, a client of mine working at a high-tech company got weary of his boss’s promises of promotion. When he missed it three years in a row he started expanding his network with biotech companies and started taking courses in that area of specialty. Now he works at a promising biotech company, as his old company is going through painful lay-offs.
  6. Merely updating your skills by taking MOOC courses or what is available on line does not always make you more marketable. You must match that with hands-on experience, even creating your own projects to make it happen. So, instead of merely stating “Certified from Coursera on Machine Learning and AI,” if you can state, “After getting Coursera certification designed and installed my personal AI system at my home that does facial recognition and automatic entry to secure zones within key areas of my house in a fail-safe way,” is a much better statement of your skills than any other statement of your getting that certification. In today’s ethos taking courses or even getting certified in them fails to impress many hiring managers.
  7. Start blogging regularly about a topic in which you want to be known as an expert. Writing blogs takes more discipline than it does talent. With so much material available on line it is not difficult to do some research (as I did with the Wall-Street Journal for this blog) and create your point of view to develop an interesting blog on a regular basis. Regular blog postings create their own followers and you get visibility in the circles that matter in your career if you do it right.
  8. If you feel stultified in your current role by repeatedly doing the same job day-in-and-day-out, identify some opportunity that is hampering customer experience in your company and volunteer to do something about it. Make your boss shine and you will get credit for doing something off the beaten path on your résumé.
  9. Keep yourself marketable by pursuing “stretch” roles and seeing how you get invited to interviews and how you are able to navigate through them. This experience will build your confidence and will keep you market-ready at all times.
  10. If you are already out and struggling to find a job when you are in your 50s, know when things are not working and find a new path to pursue your next gig!

Life is not over when you are in your 50s and get laid-off. There often are ample warning signs before actual lay-off comes your way. Use that time wisely to keep yourself in the game! If you are already out and looking, take a fresh look at your overall marketing message and strategy and get some expert advice on what needs changing.

 

Good luck!

 

Begin the journey to your new career today.