Another Curve We Better Flatten

Everyone learned about flattening the curve during COVID-19. But there’s another curve too many people ignore and if we’re not careful, it will flatten us. It’s the age curve.

One hundred percent of the individuals we coach who are over 45 worry about age discrimination. But it’s the wrong worry. They should really be worried about the age curve. And just like the Covid-19 curve, disaster could strike if it unexpectedly spikes early, and if we don’t take advance steps to lengthen it. This is a curve we flatten individually, not corporately. We need to recognize that our careers will peak, and strategize on how to flatten them into a longer periods of productive work so that we don’t risk sliding down the back end as people who are prematurely unemployable.

Last year I shared in a blog called Get Your Age Off the Table that I estimate unemployment or underemployment of mature workers to be driven by skill slippage (35%), behavior (35%), and age discrimination (30%). Did you get that? That means that approximately 70% of that un- or underemployment is within our control. Now before you go thinking this doesn’t relate to you, it’s important to understand that the population of which I speak includes people with earnings from $60K to $450K+. It also includes some at $0. It includes people with titles like “Accountant” and titles like “Chief ___ Officer.” People with the best titles tend to be at the most risk. That’s because the world gets small at the tippy top of the triangle, and it’s easy for people to assume you won’t want other jobs just because of your title. A CEO once asked me why I wasn’t pressing for a vice president title like his other senior leaders were. I had figured the risk out by then, and said, “Because it might be my last title.” And that’s where I stayed for a while, in a senior but good title with the “of” changing as necessary.

Too often, I’m sitting with someone whose curve just dropped out from under her. Although I could argue that the time to prepare is in our 20s, and that parents and schools need to help young people understand this concept early, I typically say it starts at 30. Here’s a question I frequently ask: Are you going to hire me when I’m 100? Some people give the politically correct lie, and say, “Yes, if you’re good!” But others are accurate and say—rather awkwardly—“No.” Let’s be truthful. I’m probably going to be pretty slow at 100 and I really hope I am not interviewing at that age. Maybe medicine will advance so that the lie becomes the truth. But right now, it’s a lie. I’m probably going to hear about this point from some of my colleagues… Please know that I mean well with this truth.

So, here’s the next really important question: If you probably won’t want to hire me at 100, when does that reluctance start? 90? 80? 60? We don’t know the exact answer. But what we do know is that our careers will peak. We don’t know when or where, but then we’ll be on the downward slope. The goal is to not have a sharp peak, but a longer plateau. No one is a big deal forever. And frankly, the big deals fall really hard when finances get tight and when people just don’t love them as much anymore. I was treated rudely by someone last week who used to be a big deal (based on the bio she sent me to prove she was a big deal), and she was not impressed that I was treating her just like I treat everyone else. But she really is like everyone else. So are you. And so am I.

What, then, do we do? How do we flatten this curve with a peak that may already be visible in the rearview mirror? There are four strategies we can employ consistently. And starting, oh, right about now would be a good idea.

(1) Keep a hand in the work your team is doing and have the technical knowledge to do what they do. Don’t let others do all the work for you so that you can be busy with more important things. You may work for one of them one day. Maintain your technical prowess. Don’t think for a moment that you can go ask a younger team member how to do something that he has been doing since he was seven and not have him get frustrated. Many an older new employee has failed because of things like that. And do you know what they call it? Age discrimination. But it wasn’t. It was simply being under-skilled.

(2) Stay in touch with younger people. My niece, Erica, is my marker for this. She’s a 20-something and has permission to tell me when I get out of line. She can say without fear, “It would be okay if you didn’t wear that blouse anymore.” Or more importantly, I can ask her, “Do I have a blind spot I should know about, especially one that shows my age?” In fact, why don’t you test this question out on someone right now? If they tell you you’re perfect, ask someone else. Don’t let your behavior drift away from the norm, because it’s hard to get it back in a natural way. We actually coach on how to be natural to help people get back on to teams.

(3) Treat your career investment exactly like your financial investments—you’re in it for the long haul. When the financial market drops, you don’t sell in a panic. The skilled investor knows doing otherwise risks serious financial loss. When something happens at work, don’t have an immediate reaction that causes disaster in the long-term. A knee-jerk resignation because some imperfect person did something stupid can have a serious effect on your retirement plans. Think before you jump away from that otherwise good job. The wrong reaction to an acquisition, a new CEO, or any other type of new manager, can spell trouble. By the way, it’s important to note that it’s not just your verbal reactions that matter; facial and other body reactions speak just as loudly. Don’t think that using happy words in response to getting a new, younger manager can counter the message you just sent with your face. You may just have a split second to get that right. Know what’s really important and manage for the long-term.

(4) Manage your finances to match the career curve. I have met a lot of people who thought they had it made until they were 65, at which point they planned to be on a porch at a beach in Delaware. Until something happened at age 50 and they couldn’t make the house payment after 12 months of unemployment. Sometimes those were plain but fine houses; sometimes they were large, stately ones that fit really high incomes that couldn’t be sustained in a crisis. None of us saw Covid-19 coming. But all of us should have been prepared for something to happen. That’s life. It’s an unusual family or person who has enough in savings to get by for a year. But that’s exactly what we should shoot for. The higher someone’s pay, the longer he or she is likely to be out of work. And the farther he or she can tumble.

I want to make people think about this curve, but I don’t want anyone to despair over it. Many things are out of our control, and always will be. And even with sound “curve management,” something bad could still happen. What we can do is be wise. But we can be wise early, and that is what I’m encouraging here.

Oyster clients are mostly organizations. But to support the success of organizations as we do, we are ultimately working with and developing individuals. When we coach a team, we are coaching individuals with jobs, families, homes, and futures. So this topic is one of major significance.

Contact Oyster OD for a free consultation on how we can work with you and your organization to leverage your teams for success. Julie Nielsen is president of Oyster Organizational Development, a firm that helps organizations and individuals be successful through organizational effectiveness strategies, strategic HR, and coaching. Julie has over 30 years of experience in helping organizations and individuals succeed. 


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