What if we find ourselves in need of making over a career after 50, or starting a new one? What if we aren’t pursuing a career per se, but we’re looking for a job to cover the bills or to expand our horizons?
So how do we ‘make over’ a career? More specifically, how is securing work at 52 or 62 different from doing so at 22 or 32?
Job Searching Is Hard at Any Age
I’ve had the interesting perspective of watching my two sons — Millennials — as they’ve each undertaken a job search at different times, for different durations, with different results. My younger son, still in college, had only the summer for working in a highly specialized field. Despite networking and several interviews, he couldn’t secure the type of job or internship he wanted.
Instead? He plunged into an internship opportunity in a related area, for the experience, the references and the confidence. He turned disappointment into a win… not exactly what he had in mind, but a win nonetheless.
My other son is another story. He worked part-time throughout his four years of university as well as each summer, and parlayed that experience into a full-time job at his college for the first several months after completing his degree. Because he was already a known entity (and he had distinguished himself in his job performance), he was a shoe-in when a “regular” position opened up. And he grabbed it.
However, once he began exploring other options (that would pay more and provide greater opportunity), he realized he had a contact at an organization that interested him. His contact helped him get his resume through the door, and helped secure him an interview.
He’s exceptionally articulate. He interviews well. He got the job.
Two years and one promotion later, he’s still enjoying it.
So what did he do right?
He’s extremely confident, he used his contacts, his technology skills are current (for a technology-related job), and the years of related work experience — albeit largely part-time — were impressive to a company with 20-something go-getters. He “fit” the culture and knew as much, in part from his contact inside the company.
Looking for Work Over 50? Now What?
What would be different were I to be looking at the same organization?
Ironically, when he got the job, he told me he met some of the other candidates. “They were your age, Mom,” he said to me, with similar background to mine some years back, and with many years of experience under their belts. That experience, for entry-level positions, rendered them “overqualified.”
Why else didn’t they get the job?
Well, we could look at the situation any number of ways. That “fit” issue is one, and not to be discounted. How well does a 52-year-old work in a team of 22-year-olds? How well does a 52-year-old do reporting to a 26-year-old?
While those with little experience are told “you aren’t qualified; you have no experience,” those of us with 10, 15, 20 or more years of related work are told we’re “overqualified” — something I’ve heard many times these past 10 years, along with over-educated.
What they aren’t saying to your face (or mine) — over 50.
Which is worse? 22 and can’t get work? 52 and can’t get work?
Both are frustrating, with commonalities and differences.
What Makes Job Searching at 50+ Daunting?
Job searching can be exciting, but it can also be undermining. Rejection is hard. Rejection before you can even get in front of a potential employer or client — even harder. If you’ve been searching with no luck for three months, six months, 18 months, it’s nearly impossible not to carry the weight of profound discouragement — and fear.
However, middle age offers the advantages of knowing you’re a survivor, albeit the disadvantages of pitting you against competing candidates 25 years younger, as in the anecdote I just related. You may find the hiring managers to be of a different generation as well. Whether intentional or not, you may, in fact, be running into age-based bias that assumes less energy, resourcefulness, innovative thinking, technology expertise, not to mention a presumed greater likelihood of sick days. (Those of us who’ve hit the half-century milestone know all of these global assumptions to be untrue!)
You may be feeling insecure about some of the above yourself, not to mention those key issues of fitting in — especially if you’re looking in a “young” industry.
Those insecurities? They’re even tougher to overcome if you’ve been laid off, unemployed for a period of time, and your household is struggling as a result. You will indeed run into age bias — but let’s remember that age discrimination is a two-way street — just because someone is young, that doesn’t mean she isn’t credentialed, qualified, experienced and extremely good at her job!
You may also worry because you have less time to recover financially from missteps, and in this way, we 50-something job seekers are different from our children. They may be saddled with educational debt, but they still have time to try things out and recoup. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t take risks; on the contrary. But we need contingency plans if at all possible, and a dose of pragmatism with our determined dreaming and targeted pursuits.
Returning to the Workforce or Changing Fields
So what if you haven’t been working for a number of years? What if divorce is sending you into the workforce at 48 or 55 or 59 — and you’ve been volunteering and raising a family and busy managing a household? Do you simply give up?
Do note – I said managing a household. It’s important to recognize the organizational, negotiating, planning, budgeting, communication, leadership, teamwork along with intermittent nursing and counseling skills you’ve mastered while raising children and running a home.
These are substantive and useful skills in any sort of work environment. Remember that — especially if you feel yourself losing heart — if doors seem to be closing before you can even peek in.
If you’re changing fields or looking to take on a different sort of role within your industry or area of expertise, do consider opportunities to network, gain skills, take courses, try things out on your own, and use sites like LinkedIn to get “endorsed” as well as to spread the word as you expand your areas of competence.
What the Experts Recommend
Andrea Clement Santiago is a career advice columnist and communications professional with a background in medical sales, training, and healthcare recruiting. She is also the Guide to Health Careers for About.com, and a contributor here. I asked Andrea for her top job search recommendations, in particular for those looking to change careers in middle age.
Consider these tips.
- Inventory your accomplishments, strengths, and weaknesses both professionally and personally. Consider all your qualifications as you evaluate options for a new career.
- Plan and prepare for a ramp-up period if possible. Transitioning into a new industry or new role will not mean a lateral move. Expect to take a step or two back in pay, responsibilities and title. DO remember that your prior work experience gives you judgment that will help you move ahead quickly.
- Test the viability and fit of a new career if possible. Try it as a side job first, or build a small business on the side while still working in your current field. Once you’ve gained this experience, the transition becomes easier.
- Network friends, family, and contacts who know you, your skills, and your qualifications. Tap into your existing network for job opportunities, clients for your new business, financial backing, support staff, or whatever help you need with your new career. And don’t get hung up on age. Find a mentor if you can, and a mentor can be younger than you! DO remember to help others in return for their assistance.
Pros and Cons of Job Searching Over 50
Let’s start with the cons, and get them out of the way. Sure, in terms of presenting yourself, there’s the greater likelihood of a muffin top, a pot belly, grey hair, no hair, and a few wrinkles (or a big Botox bill). If you’re lucky, beyond a handful of aches and pains you put out of your mind, you’re otherwise raring to go!
As already stated, another challenge is this: There’s less time to recover if the financial risk of a new venture doesn’t yield success. And yes, there’s the possibility of extended family depending on you as the breadwinner — teenagers, college kids, or young adults returned to the nest as well as aging elders. No small set of worries!
Last but not least — though I haven’t seen De Niro in The Intern yet — you may well face the assumptions of potential coworkers who look at you like a parent.
Now about those pros….
- Excellent judgment, the result of experience
- Breadth of (life) experience, not to be underestimated
- Planning, negotiating, budgeting, etc. as noted above
- Determination (in some cases, desperation) — no safety net for many of us, which means failure is NOT an option
Other advantages? How about compassion, intuition, curiosity, sophisticated problem-solving, the ability to learn — just for starters! And aren’t we as good at networking online as our kids? (I give that an unequivocal YES.)
It’s worth noting the significant impact that unemployment can have on anyone at any age, though if it coincides with middle age, already potentially disorienting for many, it can be even more problematic.
At 50 (or older), we have expectations of ourselves — as being competent, as being “the rock” for our kids, as being a viable breadwinner. When these issues of identity are shaken as we experience changes due to aging, the disorientation can grow worse.
If you add the impacts of illness, death of a spouse, or divorce — you may find yourself financially adrift, dealing with sinking self-assurance, and weathering job searching stress with little to no support system. Believe me, I know what this is like. When you find yourself alone, over 50, unemployed, and depressed (naturally!), it’s nearly impossible not to feel powerless.
But we aren’t. We can keep going. We can find support. We can unearth enormous wells of resourcefulness — especially if we remember to share experiences and reach out — because that’s precisely what life experience has taught us.
After we fall, we get back up.
That said, let’s accept the legitimacy of these feelings of fear and anxiety, the practical impacts of tough times, and let’s not beat ourselves up over moments when we’re down.
Job Search Tips From AARP
AARP offers a number of good suggestions and tips for job searchers over 50. Many echo what Andrea has to say, in particular the importance of networking.
- Do make sure you have a cohesive and professional digital presence.
- Don’t use dated email accounts or accounts with nicknames (e.g. old AOL addresses).
- Do stay flexible relative to salary, while remembering to negotiate over benefits like time off.
- Don’t overdo the resume! Remember that recruiters are swamped, they can only scan, and many resumes are screened programmatically anyway.
In researching for this article, I am reminded that my own CV is too long and insufficiently focused. I haven’t seriously considered its effectiveness in two years. Shame on me! This highlights one other tip: Be able to state what you’re looking for. This needn’t be a single goal, but you do need to be clear in your objective, and able to readily match any communication of your qualifications to a prospective employer’s, client’s, or customer’s needs.
Stop by the AARP article for more useful tips like these.
The Importance of Appearance
To think that appearances don’t matter is foolish. If you think looks don’t pay, simply put, you’re wrong! And here are some of the salary statistics to prove it.
Let’s be realistic. For women especially, there’s a reason for the series on makeup makeovers beyond having fun, and likewise, the savvy style tips for women over 40 from experts who are irrepressibly chic, and who exude confidence and competence in part through polished appearance.
So, assuming that looks are important (and assuming you make it that far in a job search process), just how much do you need to do, and how far do you need to go? Whitening teeth? A great haircut? Nips and tucks? The bank to achieve all of the above?
This article on Next Avenue with job interview advice that older women don’t want to hear ticked me off when I read it. I find there to be truth to its premise that the younger and more together we appear, the better, though even that isn’t always the case. (I prefer my attorneys, physicians and other advisors older, thank you!) And, it offers several specific suggestions that are easily accommodated that some of us wouldn’t think of. (Pop over and see if you agree.)
However, I also find built-in assumptions of disposable dollars to be invested that many of us looking for work simply don’t have. I don’t dispute the need for us to put our best face forward — male or female, and at any age — but recommendations that urge female midlifers to take up skin care regimens, dye hair, lose weight, and so on are problematic.
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Expensive products? No line item in my budget (how about yours?). Menopausal weight gain? No simple, quick answer. Weight gain from medications? A challenge for both sexes. Whitening strips for the teeth? Okay…
And those costly options like cosmetic dentistry, or “freshening” the face via injectables, or an assortment of possible surgical interventions? Likely out of the question for those most in need of a new job.
Yes, appearances matter. In that, I agree with the article completely. I believe we should do what we can, do what we can afford, and do what we’re comfortable with. But long before we nail an interview, we have to hook them with our preparation, our knowledge of their specific needs, our qualifications, our willingness to work hard, our ability to fit in, and ultimately, our value.
Tips From Yours Truly
Remember that getting a foothold in a new career, identifying new projects or clients, or building a new business may mean getting an “in” to start. While hardly an exhaustive list of everything we might undertake, here is a subset of suggestions from personal experience.
- Target two dozen organizations (to start) that look promising
- Continue to grow connections and contacts via family, friends, social media, LinkedIn, alumni networks, the cashier at the market, the trainer at the gym, your priest or rabbi, your adult child, your next door neighbor…
- Identify projects / accomplishments you may have or you can develop that would be of interest
- Work those contacts for your “in”
- Target small projects or some position that will get your value established
- Starting somewhere is better than not starting at all! (Do not hold out for some grandiose idea of where you belong or what you should be doing.)
When you get that opportunity to meet face-to-face (or over Skype for the increasing number of remote positions), remember to read your audience (body language), be yourself, but do adjust tone, gestures and so on as you proceed. (You don’t want your potential new boss thinking you think you’ll soon be running the company!)
While I certainly believe that looking your best is very important, it isn’t everything, especially with the growing number of remote jobs and projects in our hybrid workforce.
Still, you may find yourself in online meetings even if you work from home, so hairstyle, makeup and glasses — all three of which can date you terribly, and most of which can be “made over” with a reasonably small financial outlay — are not to be ignored. Your goal: to feel comfortable, appropriate, and professional. This enhances confidence, which we know works wonders.
Additionally, every time you leave your house you are a walking, talking advertisement for yourself, and anyone you meet is a potential employer, client, customer, investor or other stakeholder in your future success.
Success. With a capital S!
I’ve been reminding myself of this daily — whether dashing out to pick up produce for my healthy diet, or hauling off to a physical therapy session for my back. That means I fix my hair and I do my face, and keep my 60-second Elevator Speech in mind… just in case.
Stop by here for the entire midlife makeover series.
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