Old dog, new tricks

Career reinvention for older employees

Fred Mael

We are entering a societal dilemma whose repercussions have yet to be fully understood, especially by those who will be most affected.

These are the crucial elements:

Life expectancy has risen, so that Baby Boomers are expected to be living longer. They will require additional savings compared to their parents in order to sustain themselves, even if they do not expect to live a comparable lifestyle.

The burden of debt that the US government is piling on makes it very likely that entitlements for the elderly, such as Social Security and Medicare, will be curtailed. According to a CNN/Opinion Research Poll released in August 2010, 60% of Americans who don’t already receive benefits through Social Security believe that they never will. CNN reports that Social Security will pay out more benefits than it receives in payroll taxes in both 2010 and 2011, and expects regular deficits within just a few years.

At the very least, retirement ages required for receiving benefits will likely be pushed back, with the assumption that adults in their fifties, sixties and seventies will continue to work longer without expectation of entitlement monies. According to an April 2010 Gallup Poll, over 33% of people not yet retired intend to work beyond age 65, up from only 12% in 1995.

Willing and able with nowhere to go

For those who are in good health and have jobs or own their own successful businesses, this may require belt-tightening but may not be cause for alarm. For those who have lost their jobs, or wish to find new ones, this may be a serious problem. The reason: People over fifty are having a much harder time than others finding new jobs. According to Labor Department data reported by the New York Times in September, those over age 55 take an average of 39 weeks to find new jobs, longer than any other age group.

The reasons given, whether legitimate or not, are myriad:

Older workers may be over qualified.

They may expect too much money.

They may not be as tech-savvy or as tech-adaptable as youthful workers.

They may miss more work for illness and may have more “preexisting conditions” that will drain health benefits.

They may be more inflexible about working long hours or being available at all times.

Even of each of these reasons is a myth, and even if age discrimination in hiring and firing is illegal, there are many ways to reject an older candidate without leaving any evidence of discrimination. The issue still remains: There are no guarantees in the new economy that anyone will keep their job until retirement. People over 50 who lose their jobs are at a distinct disadvantage, even though they may need the income as much as anyone else. Enforced early retirement can be as devastating as any prolonged period of joblessness, except that it has the added terror of possibly being permanent.

Are there easy solutions? No. Here, though is a proactive idea that may benefit some of your older employees, if not you:

Everyone needs to learn marketing

Consider a basketball analogy. Many players are good shooters. If you throw them the ball in their sweet spot on the court and they have room to maneuver, they have good odds of scoring. They are, however, dependent on others to get them the ball. A smaller number of players can “create their own shot” – meaning, they can maneuver in tight spaces, drive the lane, and shape their own optimal conditions to get a quality shot. Great shooters are valuable but can have bad games and can be shut down. Those who create their own shots are indispensable and have a better chance of contributing even when not at the top of their games.

The same thing applies to work. Consider someone who has been a good employee who always stayed in the office or factory, working on whatever was handed to him, or managing whoever was assigned to him. The his job goes away. No matter how capable he is, he may feel he has no choice but to look for another job and another employer to hand work to him.

On the other hand, someone who has delved into marketing, networking and sales (in whatever way it applies to his field) is not as limited. For one thing, sales people always seem to be needed. Second, the person will already have had some experience marketing himself. He has the option of marketing himself as a consultant, an entrepreneur, or a short-term hire. Third, he should have an easier time looking for a new job because he should be less shell-shocked and uncomfortable selling himself to others. Finally, if he is capable of “creating his own shot” by rainmaking, he is probably more likely to be considered indispensable in difficult times. He may be less likely to be laid off in the first place or more capable of switching to a non-salaried, commission-based pay structure.

True, not every job lends itself to a marketing role – but every person can gain experience networking, marketing and promoting, even if it is for a non-profit or volunteer organization. Experienced and therefore older employees living in difficult times owe it to themselves to try to become accustomed to entrepreneurial roles.

There are other things the mature worker can do to remain viable. One is keeping abreast of new technologies and avoiding becoming dependent on younger workers for operating computers and other machinery. Another is paying attention to trends in one’s field that may make certain skills or experiences rrelevant in the near future. The main point is to become more capable of transitioning from a current position into any number of employment and work arrangements, rather than being totally dependent on someone else providing a comparable job. That may not happen soon enough – and it may not happen at all.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers.