Get Your Age Off the Table

My wake-up call came two years ago when Oyster was launching. Money was tight and my millennial niece, Erica, was helping me where she could. The moment is etched in my memory. I had gotten a room at an old inn in Richmond, and we were getting work done before heading to a concert. She was camped at my laptop and her face was glowing from the display. “Oh my God!” she exclaimed, while doing some Facebook work. “Am I your only friend?” Her words stuck with me as I was driving home the next day. It wasn’t quite that bad, but what was going on with my social networking, brand, and outreach skills? Why was I letting busy-ness cause me to fall behind? It’s an important question.

I have found there are three main factors that lead to premature unemployment for older workers: skill slippage, outdated behaviors/habits, and age discrimination. Based on my experience with over 100 people, I estimate that the percentages are 35%, 35%, and 30%, respectively. Do you notice the incredibly important message there? Approximately 70% of the problem is in the control of the individual, especially in a rocking job market like what we have right now. We all need to have a wake-up call like mine above, because this is a way of thinking and living, not something you do when it’s too late.

Other than legal and HR policies concerning avoidance, no one seems to be addressing the age problem directly. And what is the number one thing advocates and the government do to try and stem the problem? They focus only on the 30% that is not in the control of the individual. They “educate” employers on how to avoid age discrimination in their hiring and policies.  Less than helpful consultants tell those over 50 things like, “Lie (fudge) on your resume,” as if removing all the dates will pre-dispose a company to ignore how you look when you walk in the door. They tell you how to reword experience to sound hipper.

The number one thing that should be done, and what we are doing at Oyster, is focusing on the 70% and not the 30%. That is, focusing on changes individuals can make to solve their own aging challenges in a genuine way. And it’s working. Here are some examples.

Appearance

It’s essential to look professional, capable, and current. Missing any one of those components triggers an alarm bell. Let me give two examples, as sensitively as possible. Men, it’s not okay to have a combover. Maybe in some places and in some cases you can get away with it. But in general, you want to show that you know how to present yourself and can demonstrate self-perception and confidence. Ladies, are you wearing clothes that fit well last year? Don’t do that. Appearance is kin to social skills. Know what’s current. Know what makes you look good. Wear what you wear well, and don’t just try to imitate younger people. Look online at what people are doing or in stores at what’s selling and make sure you are not outdated or ill-fit. Know the difference between retro and odd. It’s not about spending money, either. You can mix and match just fine at Kohl’s.

Behaviors

Two years ago I was interviewing someone for a senior position. A mature applicant leaned back in his chair, spread eagle, put one arm up over the back of his chair, and said, “Well Jul, here’s how I look at this role…” The fact that he was acting strangely by spreading eagle was immediately lost on me when he got to the “Jul” part. Most of my friends and family call me Jul, but never strangers. That requires access. He was trying to project a false sense of familiarity and experience that was ill placed and unpleasant. I couldn’t get him out of my office fast enough.

Here’s a behavior that I have witnessed a number of times. I am not poking fun here—I am being accurate. Older people meeting me for coaching will sometimes sit across from me, head down, rumpled, and looking defeated. “I’m afraid I’ll be discriminated against,” they will say sadly. I am quiet and study them for a minute, until they wonder why I’m being so quiet and they look up. “You are going to be discriminated against,” I say flatly, “if you keep acting like Eeyore and looking the way you look right now. Look at me like you are the capable person you are!” You know what happens? They laugh. They sit up straight. They tell me I’m right. And we go on to have a good conversation about what it takes to work in today’s workforce. Please go research Eeyore immediately if you were not exposed to Winnie-the-Pooh as a child.

A key piece of advice to Boomers: Embrace your experience and the value you bring to today’s Millenials and GenXers. Demonstrate your talent in interpersonal communication, natural leadership, teamwork, and the sharing of knowledge.

Skills

Stay with me, because this is incredibly important. You have to maintain the skills of a 30-year-old. I don’t say “22-year-old” on purpose, since that sounds a little daunting, even to me. Remember my Facebook debacle. I actually have older job seekers say things to me like, “Look, you need to understand the generation I come from…” And with all the respect and firmness I can muster without crushing them, I say, “No, that is not my problem and you need to understand it now.”

I talk to a lot of people who were highly compensated and in high-impact positions who are suddenly out of work and have poor basic software skills. I’m talking Word, Excel, and Outlook. Don’t think for a minute that you can go bother younger co-workers to get help learning what they learned in elementary school. That is not cool and it’s a really good way to make your age distasteful. Do you have excellent formatting skills so you can create any kind of document well, without making it look like it’s a ransom note for a kidnapped coworker? (Just because you can use lots of different fonts and colors doesn’t mean you should.) Do you know that Excel is all about what you get out of it and not what you put into it? Don’t try to tell me you are good at Excel because you can insert basic formulas. Demonstrate that you’re good at Excel because you can tell a story with pivot tables and other types of data analysis. My point isn’t specifically about a pivot table; it’s about having the necessary and current skills for your profession. This next one will hit home for a lot of people: Please do not copy yourself on emails. Why do you think your sent folder exists? Don’t advertise your lack of technological expertise.

There are two take-aways on skills:

  1. Make a plan now to stay current regardless of your age. Don’t let busy-ness leave you behind.
  2. Fix the problem now if you are behind. Public libraries make Lynda.com courses available for free. There are many free online courses, and there’s always LinkedIn Learning.

Final Thoughts

What I’m saying is that you have to be good to work with regardless of your age. I’m aiming this blog at the mature workforce because our Boomers have a big problem. So do our employers – they don’t have enough workers. And being good to work with is part of every job description. That’s a marketable skill and behavior that most older workers possess.

Know this, regardless of your age. Just because you get a job in this tight labor market, don’t think you’ll keep it unless you know how to operate. And we need to be focused on sustained employment, not just an immediate job that disappears like a spring snow. Don’t make your age a factor at all, and you are probably going to do quite well.

As for the other 30% who may actually be affected by age discrimination, we need to dig deep to determine the problem, and to get them to better employers. As I said at the beginning, ageism is out there. And frequently it’s the older people doing it! Have you said someone was over qualified lately? Did you tell your HR person you wanted someone with energy? Did you suggest that what you really need is a recent grad? That’s ageist thinking. Think about it and remember that older workers tend to be actually focused on work, not kickball. And that is a good thing.

Watch for the next Oyster blog on the vulnerability of executives. It is called Loneliness and Danger at the Top.

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