In many ways it’s the natural evolution of a career. You put your head down, work as hard as you can and get as far as you can go…and for many different reasons you are likely to run out of gas at the company or in the role you’re in. So you leave. Or you make plans to leave. Or you are displaced.  If you’re older (no need to go into specific ages), you might be a little concerned about your prospects whether you just need a job or you’re transforming yourself like many do.

Age is a touchy subject. No, employers cannot discriminate based on your age however I sense there’s a common perception that employers dismiss your candidacy based on an approximation of your advancing age according to information in your resume. While I’m not going to pretend that age plays no role in your candidacy, I’m going to suggest that  other factors weigh in heavily. And, for the sake of a framework for this piece, I’ll present those factors in the context of facts and inferences founded in your past, your present and your future.  The entire timeline of your life and career do play a role, and are characterized through not only your resume but also your personal interaction, such as networking  and interviews.

I came across this exceptional article that was published as I was creating this post and I’m thankful.  I can now backtrack and edit this piece to focus less on the tactical elements of your situation for the sake of considering the larger picture that is the story you and your touchpoints tell.  I think that the Careerealism article coupled with some additional perspective here, will help you characterize where you are today and what you need to do next to show off all the great things you do have to offer!

So let’s examine your story while we hypothesize how that might stack up against the younger, unproven competish:

The past.older worker 2

Let’s first attack the juiciest one to talk about: the past. Which mostly is about experience level.

On the surface it may seem like those who have the most experience win.  Not necessarily so.  In more technical roles (IT, construction), experience is almost always an asset because it can easily translate into metrics that make impact (e.g. improved efficiency, accuracy). In more objective roles such as leadership/management, it’s a whole different ballgame.

What companies are fishing for in your experience is the impact you have made. Usually this is shown through business results, but another key area is the ways in which you have effected positive change, and those ways could even be qualitative.  In short, with your ‘experience’ did you just occupy a desk or did really cause something?  This is the story your resume tells, and why experience can really work against you.  A big way to quickly figure this out is if your resume reads like a job description. If so, that’s a red flag.

If you are looking for leadership roles in fast moving categories, the importance of skill in effecting change increases. Said another way, employers aren’t hiring people who were decent at doing business the way it was done in the last five years.  Few are looking to do business like it’s 2012 anymore, so much of what’s in your history could end up irrelevant. They want someone to lead them into tomorrow; that sort of experience needs to pop on your resume and in your overall personal brand. Can you demonstrate a bias toward incubating new business models? Have you seen the future before others and lead teams toward it? If not, you’re seen as someone who plays it safe or is otherwise slow to adapt.  A track record of that kind of negative ‘experience’ is almost worse than not having a track record at all.

Let me illustrate with an example. If it’s relevant to the role (say, in marketing), I will directly ask an older worker to give me examples of how they were ahead of the curve as the internet was changing the face of traditional marketing. I can certainly answer that question for myself. Working for Johnson & Johnson in the U.S. in the early 2000s, I was pulled onto teams to set company wide standards of practice for internet marketing as brands were  scrambling to build web sites and figure out how to engage in this new medium. I ended up becoming an internal consultant on site-building before I even made manager.

Aside from this I was hand-selected by the digital agency/business partner to form a 5 person team to upload J&J’s first digital CRM department. I was also routinely rotated into white space roles between my brand assignments as I built an internal brand of someone who could forecast and articulate the future. I bring these things up proactively in cover letters and interviews to position myself as forward thinking….because that is very much what I am. I take it upon myself to disspell any notions that may be pre-conceived. Everyone in my age group should consider the same objective.

The present.

The question of trajectory comes up here to an even deeper level. Employers are trying to determine if at this moment your career has leveled off. Your resume will provide many indicators of the extent to which your potential has been realized.

Interviews will only be able to capture so much information about your skillset so be ready to discuss how you are staying current. As marketing tactics become more new-media based, be prepared to discuss your experience and aptitude in the digital, social and mobile realm.  If you don’t understand the space, work quickly to close those knowledge gaps by taking courses and doing a lot of reading.

You don’t want anything about you to seem dated.  Everything must scream ‘current’, including your personal presentation — a material component of your brand.  Make sure you’re impeccably groomed and, gosh, if that suit or hairstyle is more than 3-5 years old, update it. Same goes for the shoes; they need to look new. Every single data point your interviewer collects through discussion or observation needs to consistently suggest fresh, detail-oriented, contemporary or sometimes even cutting edge.

I do encounter middle aged men in particular who balk at the need to trim the eyebrows,  ditch the double pleats or shop for new shoes.  They are adamant that it shouldn’t matter. I get where they are coming from my answer is simply this — it does. And, the choice is yours: change the world or change yourself. Hopefully I needn’t explain which approach is likely to be easier, and more effective.

The future.

The future — for both rookies and veterans alike – is hypothetical. Still there are some important messages to be delivered. First, you need to seem like you have lots left in the tank, in the following ways:

  • Do you look healthy and ready to run the race? Do you still look like you have an appetite to work long hours if needed? Are you still so full of excitement that you can instill it into your team? Will you be the last person standing when a draining project comes along?
  • What gets you up in the morning? Where does your fire come from?
  • What is left for you to accomplish in your career?
  • In this blog post from last year I talk about the importance of never stopping. Never stop learning, achieving, dreaming, doing. Doesn’t have to be work related by any means. Employers will try to understand what you’re doing with your life right now and how this relates to your dreams and future plans. If you occur as if you have ‘stopped’, you are convincing the interviewer you’re planning to coast or in some way shutting down.

To this last point, I have interviewed many, experienced candidates (and don’t forget, I’m one of them).  They look beaten. Unsure of who they are, what they have to offer, and even what they want out of life and a career. You can get away with some of that lack of clarity when you’re 23, but not when you’re 45.  By then, you need to exude a quiet confidence that comes with a lifetime of insight-generating experiences.

Your past, your present and your future conspire to create a story that is you. Earlier I showed why experience is not always a selling point and what’s worse, experience still comes with it salary expectations. Employers are looking for the right fit, sure, and they are also running a business; so like a good business person, they are intoxicated by the prospect of great value. Value that is the product of limited expense and promise of upside that sounds like great ROI to the buyer.

So I guess my closing thought is in fact about value. Your career to date has shown a hiring manager that they can be reasonably sure what they are getting for their money.  If that offering isn’t something that gets the blood pumping — and you expect to be paid — then there’s a concerning value proposition at play that is quite independent of your age. Your last bastion is to demonstrate your upside with convincing aspirations and a plan to achieve them.

Without any of these crucial components your age will work against you. It’s important that you have the right perspective so that you can employ some of the suggestions in the Careerealism article to revitalize your brand and boost your candidacy.


Loving this article about the emergence of internships for the over-40 crowd!