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Positive Attitude is Key For Older Workers and Job-Seekers
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Age discrimination is real. We know it anecdotally from readers we've heard from who've been blatantly discriminated against because they're older. We know it from legal cases, such as a complaint brought by AARP, the advocacy group for older Americans, against an executive-search firm that screened out candidates over 45 at the request of some clients. And we know it from statistics (see box, "By the Numbers," at the end of this article).
To make matters worse, age discrimination, which can begin as early as 40, seems to be much more subtly acceptable than, say, gender or racial bias. While complaints of age-related discrimination are rising, complaints about most other forms of job discrimination are not, reports Newsday.
As real and as painful as it is, however, age discrimination can best be fought with an upbeat attitude. If you feel yourself bumping up against the "grey ceiling," here are some of the ways you can empower yourself with an optimistic outlook:
- Don't be a victim and don't panic. "If you're feeling sorry for yourself or holding a grudge . . . you probably won't get meaningful work," says John Carney, who runs a placement agency specializing in mature workers, as quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
- Tap into "Boomer Power." If you were born between 1946 and 1964, no one has to tell you you're a Baby Boomer. You've always had economic clout, and you'll continue to do so in the workforce simply because there aren't enough workers in the succeeding generations to do the work that needs to be done. John Izzo, a retention consultant quoted by Patricia Kitchen in Newsday, notes that "employers would be scrambling without those Boomers, who now fill so many key positions." That will especially be true in three to four years, Izzo says, when Boomers begin to take early retirement. "When Baby Boomers leave the workplace, industries are going to be crippled," says AARP's John Forrest, as quoted on HR.com.
- Keep your energy level up. Some young whippersnappers don't want to hire older folks because they think they'll be slow, plodding, and drag the work unit down with their lack of productivity. Keep yourself healthy and fit. Eat right and get enough sleep so you can be bursting with energy when you meet with young hiring managers.
- Embrace change. Another reason younger hiring managers resist hiring oldsters is their belief that older workers are set in their ways and not open to new ways of doing things. Convey that you are versatile, adaptable, and ready to do things differently. Expertise grounded in decades of experience may have limited value in a world where new theories, technologies, and concepts keep emerging and old ones keep changing and evolving. A mindset that says "the way I learned to do things 30 years ago is best" probably won't fly, especially with a younger hiring manager who may not have even learned some of the theories that the older job-seeker is talking about. By focusing on change, older workers will be much more successful. And the more technical the job, the more important flexibility and willingness to learn are.
- Keep your spirits up through inspiration from those who believe that top thinkers don't hit the peak of their mental capability until deep into old age. See HR.com's article, When I'm 64.
- Rail against the myths. Always bear in mind that most of the stereotypes about older workers simply aren't true. Lisa B. Song of Knight Ridder News Service reported that a survey last year by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA found, for example, that IT workers 45 years and older were rated as better problem-solvers and communicators and equivalent to younger workers on technical knowledge and teamwork skills. Read other myths about older workers.
- Face the fact that some unenlightened organizations simply won't hire you if you're "of a certain age," and you're better off not fighting them. Instead, put your energy into seeking out the companies who welcome your work ethic and maturity. Companies who discriminate against older workers are to be pitied because they will face serious worker shortages as the population ages. As David R. Francis writes in The Christian Science Monitor, "economists and officials [in all industrial nations] figure their countries will need older workers to prosper and can't afford discrimination."
A number of experts also note that Boomers will redefine aging the way they've redefined so much of life at the turn of this millennium. As keynote speaker at the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), Ken Dychtwald, a highly regarded gerontology researcher and author (Age Power: How the 21st Century will Be Ruled By the New Old) pointed out that retiring Boomers will likely "transform old age as they've transformed everything else." In the past, he said, we retired our "old folks" because of health reasons (they didn't live much longer), and we had plenty of young folks to take their place. Now, the Boomers may live much longer and healthier and many may want to continue working -- in a much different way than they did before. They have the ability (and clout) as a group to redefine work to fit themselves -- and after all -- there won't be many alternatives for employers in need of talent.
Global workplace consulting firm Drake Beam Morin predicts that the career choices and challenges of an increasingly older labor pool will have a profound impact on organizations' strategies for securing and developing talent in the coming decade. Every aspect of human resource management will be affected, including hiring, professional development, retention practices, and career management and transition tactics, further demonstrating the Boomers' strength in numbers.
Remember, too, as Sue Shellenberger notes in the Wall Street Journal, that it was the Baby-Boomer generation that in the 1980s began pressing for child-care help, flexible scheduling, and other work-family supports. Even earlier, they fought for civil rights and the end of the Vietnam War. Boomers are a strong and powerful voice. "Failure to include mature workers in the work force is something this age group is not going to accept," said Donald L. Davis, vice president for work force development at the National Council on the Aging, in an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
See also Approaches for Older Workers Who Can't Find a Job and Resume, Cover Letter, and Interview Strategies for Older Workers.
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.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com.
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).
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