How The Over-50 Can Succeed In The Workplace

by Jane Genova on June 18, 2012

How Over-50 Can Succeed in the WorkplaceNot so long ago, if older workers muttered about age bias, many would write them off as probably not doing a good job any more. That was a different time.

Now, just about every constituency, ranging from public policy leaders to career experts, are taking those kinds of observations seriously. Gone is the happy talk that it’s not one’s age but one’s performance which determines employability and even upward mobility. Instead there is the admission that, you bet, there is a bias against aging professionals. The threshold for that begins at 40.

To use the cliché, call it a perfect storm. There are simply a lot of older professionals looking for work, mostly because they can’t afford to retire. Simultaneously, the brutal economy, along with downsizing in both the legal sector and financial services, has made it harder for all generations to get and keep jobs. The over-50 are competing directly with the under-40.

In addition, employers are reluctant to provide medical benefits to any generation, but especially to aging workers because of the greater probability of health problems. In 2012, no one over-50 is imagining being targeted for a layoff, being passed over for a promotion, or not being hired. The reality is that they are.

The beginning of the solution is recognizing that you are now in a separate category. Sure, it’s possible to go to the EEOC or file a lawsuit, but that takes years and bread has to be put on the table now. That’s step one: Embrace what is.

Step two is to decide whether to continue being an employee or to become an entrepreneur. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation documents that baby boomers have a high rate of self employment. That’s exactly why trade associations such as the New York City Bar Association (NYCBA) are doing so much to help those starting small businesses. For instance, the NYCBA recently distributed a white paper for solos and small firms on everything from how to unbundle services to pricing.

Step three is, for those remaining employees, to understand that they have to raise the bar on their game. It’s not an option to simply do your job. That’s one of the factors which leads to targeting. Someone half your age might be able to do that job at less than half the compensation. Instead, your performance has to exceed requirements, preferably in ways that are unexpected.

The role model here for raising the bar is Hillary Clinton. She keeps surprising with how she leverages her experience and skills. After losing out on her presidential campaign, she could have vanished. Clinton’s most recent success as U.S. Secretary of State bears out what research is showing.

That is, for the aging, everything, ranging from work to life itself, usually becomes binary. On the one hand, you can open yourselves up to newness. Those who do that frequently wind up thriving. Or on the other hand you can shut down, turn inward, and become bitter. Marie de Hennezel in “The Art of Growing Old” confirms that binary reality. There doesn’t seem to be anything in between.

To recap:
Accept that your job is and will always be on the line
Decide if you are going to remain an employee or opt for self-employment
Open yourself to newness.

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Jane Genova is a contributing writer at the Wall Street Job Report.

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5 comments

I debunk the myth that older workers are passe. I’ve kept up with the emerging technologies and have always been a successful IT consultant until recently. In my last two jobs, I was older than my colleagues, and they didn’t want upper management to find out that I was more capable than they were. So of course, you’re only as good as your next project, and once mine was over, they wouldn’t renew my contract, but always volunteered to give me an excellent reference. Nowadays, I’m suddendly over-qualified for ‘everything’ when I wasn’t overqualified during the phone screen, and the presentation of my resume.
These excuses means those who already have the job are insecure in their position, and would rather hire someone medicore than someone truly qualified.
I type 60 wpm, with above-average keyboarding and MS office knowledge, as well as highly adaptable, yet, I pose a threat to every potential employee who isn’t qualified to hold the job they currently have.
I don’t need help configuring my personal PC for the onboarding setup process of e-mail and other proprietary applications, as it has been my consulting background that’s given me the edge, keeping abreast with current state-of-the-art technologies, therefore, I’m never a fish out of water.
It is exactly my knowledge-base that’s the most threatening, but you want someone qualified, right?
Not really.

by Paula Thomas on June 18, 2012 at 7:16 pm. Reply #

The article, “How the Over-50 Can Succeed in the Workplace” has an underlying premise which is unstated but which needs to be made explicit. That premise is that the workplace, more specifically the financial markets workplace, is a meritocracy. One’s achievements dictate one’s utility, and the moment that one ceases to achieve, his utility can come to a swift end.

This is such a comforting assumption for those who believe that their efforts are being favorably weighed on an impartial balance of worth. Inequities do not rule in such a vision of workplace forces, and one can in true Horatio Alger form pull himself up by his own bootstraps. Only those who exhibit a Darwinian unfitness for their profession would ever find themselves snubbed and pushed so far to the periphery of their chosen profession that they would become unemployable. Age, it is maintained, has little or nothing to do with it.

Would that this were true, but it simply isn’t. There is a certain arrogance that arises when the young ascend to positions of influence while still in their youth. When that twenty- or thirty-something has become the top sales person, portfolio guru, quasi-omniscient trader and when he has been given a voice in the processes that affect the hiring of others whose prowess, energy, or age do not match his own, it becomes easy to say no to persons who are quite suitable for the job at hand. It really is not any different from the executive in his mid-fifties saying, “No,” to an idea that makes perfect sense just to show that he has the power to do so.

Human behavior is often inexplicable. Any casual stroll of one’s fingers through the pages of a history book will unearth occurrence after occurrence of decisions whose irrationality and indefensibility have led to hostilities of varying degrees, ranging from little more than a grudge match to outright genocide. As an example, today’s blissful, touristy Hawaii belies its not so ancient violent past in which the troops of Kamehameha achieved their victory in 1792 by pushing more than 800 troops of the opposing army off the edge of the 1,000 foot cliff at Nu’uanu Pali. As gruesome and terrifying as this event was, it bears on this discussion as an example of generational warfare. The defeated army was that of Kamehameha’s own son Kalanikupule.

Surely, you would say, this is not what the financial world is about. He who ascends in the world of finance is one who performs the best, who achieves the most – again the reassertion of a merit-based system. I would contend, however, that in the world of finance, stock brokerage, M&A, and banking where the unvarnished power to hire or fire reigns supreme, a suitable historical analogy would be the machinations of those next in line to the emperorship of ancient Rome. Like the next generation hungry for finding its place in the sun, so youth rules Wall Street.

But along with the energy and ambition of youth comes its lack of wisdom and life experience. In the mind of those who now have control of the reins, it is easy not to see one’s own shortsightedness, prejudices, and petty biases and to re-categorize them under the heading of “street smarts.” The man or woman sitting on the other side of the hiring desk with wrinkles, drooping eyes, a gray and/or balding head, and a slow response to one’s own rapid-fire questioning is surely not suited to the multi-tasking world of high finance. Be gone with them; off with their heads.

When I think of the greenhouse microclimate in which Wall Street alpha males and females duke it out with lesser associates reminiscent of the Roman emperor Commodus slaying his own gladiatorial sparring partners, I realize that while there are many unfair employment markets in these United States, Wall Street is perhaps the most eminently unfair of them all. It has eschewed the benefits of a lifetime of accumulated wisdom of older employees in favor of the brashness of younger, less experienced, more risk-inclined workers for whom a 5% loss of pension assets is no big deal – it’s like only like five percent, like really! It has distilled its talent pool so that it now can wring nearly every penny of profit lurking in each market swing while at the same time it has alienated nearly every individual investor in favor of catering to only the largest hedge funds and pension plans. It has driven the average Joe out of the marketplace, and made Wall Street a place where only the richest can play on a quasi-equal footing. It has become what some might imagine Carl Sandberg would describe it as being: hog butcher, stacker of wheat, player with railroads, stormy, husky, and brawling. Old people can’t keep up, so push them off the cliffs like Kamehameha troops did.

Wall Street is not alone in its willful tunnel vision. There are plenty of other manifestations of the same behavior from nearly every corner of society these days. Wall Street, however, is more obvious an example because it does what it does with seeming impunity. As the saying goes, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”

The advice of the article is, in short, to:
1. Accept that one’s job is always in jeopardy,
2. Decide to work for either someone else or yourself, and
3. Open oneself to newness.

These are fine recommendations as far as they go, but they don’t address the discriminatory and, quite frankly, illegal behavior of firms in the Wall Street bubble that believe that their standards for hiring are permitted to digress in very fundamental ways from those of the rest of the nation. These are accommodations, concessions to an industry sector that believes it runs under different rules. I would ask what happens if those wrinkled, gray haired, watery-eyed discards from the industry decide to go on the offense.

by Robert DeFazio on June 18, 2012 at 7:58 pm. Reply #

Anecdotal information is not scientifically sound, but can be informative. My own experience was shocking to me. I love to work, I’m an extremely quick study, highly analytic and a very good communicator (including an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal). I’m well educated (PhD in business from a top school) and have kept up with changes in my field and several related fields. I’m also 65. I was laid off from a re-insurer at 58 when a new CEO (who later took the company into bankruptcy) closed the New York office keeping only one person. I immediately had a substantial consulting assignment with a start up funded by an angel investor.

When that ended, I found I couldn’t even get interviews. Because of an academic background in addition to business experience, I have been able to piece together an living with adjunct professor jobs. This summer I am teaching 7 classes at three different institutions, four of which are accelerated for 5 or 6 week sessions covering 15 weeks of material. I am currently in class 33 hours per week teaching basic economics, corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions (MBA level), statistics (MBA level), etc. A minimum of 1 hour outside of class for 1 hour in leads to 66 hours per week for about 1/3 of my previous income and no benefits. I say this largely to show that I have the stamina for a solid work effort as well as the ability to perform and be creative in my approach to work. However, that seems to lead nowhere when it comes to getting an opportunity in the business world at my age. It seems that all the positive qualities are less important than age in evaluating my ability.

This is, naturally, frustrating for me. I want to work at more than I am now. I still have much to contribute and I strongly believe with regard to intellect, business acumen and skills, creativity and often even in terms of stamina, I can run circles around most forty somethings in the workplace.

by William Farrell on June 19, 2012 at 10:14 am. Reply #

What do you mean by this sentence ?
“In 2012, no one over-50 is imagining being targeted for a layoff, being passed over for a promotion, or not being hired. ”

First of all, why the hyphen between “over” and “50″ ?

Second, just about EVERYONE I know is worrying about being “targeted for a layoff, being passed over for a promotion, or not being hired”, ESPECIALLY if they’re older than 50.

???

by Jake M on June 20, 2012 at 8:40 am. Reply #

The challenge of continuing to make a living as we age could turn out to be bigger and more transformative than the questioning our generation did in the late 1970s. These comments are a sign that we are sharing our experiences and strategies/tactics for bringing in income, no matter what.

I am convinced: We have to get ourselves through this one. Other generations have their own sets of problems. In the complex where I live, about four years ago those of us over-50 created an informal network for leads on jobs, freelance assignments, and free training. The payoff is that every one of us has remained working and has acquired new skills.

by Jane Genova on June 20, 2012 at 1:25 pm. Reply #

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