How to Age-Proof Your Career
AT A COMPANY GOLF OUTING a few years ago, Michael Levine tried to rattle his 24-year-old colleague as he was about to putt by stealing a line from the 1980 movie Caddyshack’. “Noonan!” he yelled, just as the caddies in the film did to disrupt a character on the green. The joke fell flat — painfully flat. The young man had never seen the movie; heck, he’d barely heard of it. “He looked at me like I was nuts,” says Levine, who’s now 44 and works as a private investor. “We started talking about movies, and I couldn’t believe that he hadn’t seen Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark. I felt ancient.”
There’s no upside to appearing stale — much less ancient — in today’s workforce, where job security is as elusive as the golphers Bill Murray stalked in Caddyshack. Even if there’s no risk of losing your job, looking like a fuddy-duddy could sabotage your chances of getting a raise or promotion. Sure, many companies value older workers for their institutional knowledge, industry expertise, and mentoring capacity. But you can’t rest on those laurels in a rapidly changing workplace.
Far more than pop culture is at play here. Young people are putting their stamp on the office with new technologies and work styles, and the changes are every bit as intractable as when boomers popularized career women and casual Fridays. “If you can be flexible, it’s going to help,” says Robin Ryan, career coach and author of Over 40 and You’re Hired! Embrace more youthful ways and you’ll show you’ve still got game.
Not that it’s easy. Who’s not threatened by the facility with technology shown by younger colleagues? Who doesn’t occasionally think that previous ways of doing things were better? Who doesn’t sometimes hope to muddle through till retirement? It’s okay to think these things — you just don’t want to be projecting them in the way you talk, dress, or do business. Watch for these signs that you’re adding to your work age.
YOU LOOK OLD IF…
YOU THINK ONLY BIRDS TWEET
When Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz resigned in February, he announced it not with a press release but via a “tweet.” You missed it, right? Well, you’re missing a lot more if you haven’t yet figured out Twitter; same for Facebook and LinkedIn. Social media isn’t a flash trend, it’s part of a tech-tonic cultural shift. Increasingly such tools are being used to do business—and even to generate revenue, “so boomers need to get comfortable with them,” says workplace researcher Bruce Tulgan, co-author of Managing the Generation Mix. “Not learning social networking is like being the aging person who never turned on the TV.” Yet while 75% of Gen Y workers have profiles on social-media sites, only 30% of boomers do, a recent Pew Research Center survey found.
Become part of the Twitterati: Go to twitter.com, and sign up for an account. The point of this real-time microblogging site — which caps posts at 140 characters — is to “follow” people to see what’s making news in their worlds. From a career POV, you want to follow thought leaders in your field. An easy way to do that is to identify a few people you really respect in your profession and see who they’re following. By reading them you’ll stay current, and by repeating — or retweeting — what you learn, your newfound edge will show. Once you’re ready, you can post interesting things you’re doing or links to articles that got you thinking.
If you haven’t already done it, create profiles on both Facebook and LinkedIn and add “connections.” These sites are changing the way people think of community. Spend an hour or so a week exploring the features, which are always changing. “Tell yourself that time spent being sucked into the vortex of Facebook is career development,” says Tulgan.
YOU LOOK OLD IF…
YOU LOVE THE BIG MEETING
Boomers came of age at a time when bosses frequently gathered staff for updates and marching orders. For a generation that logged long hours and blurred the line between work and life, those meetings also served as a pseudosocial outlet.
Younger folks aren’t biting. Their philosophy: Get the job done — and get a life. “Boomers need to understand that this is a high-tech, high- flex workforce,” says historian Neil Howe, co-author of Millennials Rising. Gens X and Y have eagerly engaged new tools to help them work more efficiently. (Remember, the youngest have never known life without computers or cellphones.) They embrace texting, webinars, e-mail, and wikis, all of which can supplant physical gatherings. To be in on their discussions, you’d better get in on the new communications channels.
If you’re in a position to call meetings, do so judiciously. “We still have them,” says John Babinchak, 51, managing director at CBR Public Relations in Maitland, Fla. “But there aren’t as many, and they aren’t the old style, where everyone sits down with a long agenda.”
Keep ’em short, and rely on e-mail and instant messaging to plug any gaps — young people use these methods of communication even if they’re sitting a few clicks away from one another.
Since more people are embracing flexible schedules, set up videochat — via Skype or iChat — to replace traditional gatherings. And next time you need to collaborate on a project, consider using a wiki — such as those at docs.google.com — which allows multiple parties to enter and edit text. Becoming familiar with these technologies will pay off for you down the line. Intimidated? “You don’t have to learn any of this on your own,” says Lisa Haneberg, author of flip and Sage: Staying Smart, Cool and Competitive in the Workplace. “Young people know it cold, and they’re eager to help.”
One downside to the new meeting-lite office is that digital communication lines — e-mail and text messaging — are always open. To keep up, trade your clamshell cell for a smartphone with a data plan. Their familiar QWERTY keyboards make it easier to adapt to texting and mobile e-mail.
Marcia Noyes, 49
Marketing and PR manager, Healthagen
- She hardly used a cellphone.
- And she didn’t even have a smartphone like her younger colleagues.
- Breaking in an iPod Touch convinced her she’s ready for an Android.
- She now reads books, searches the web, and maintains contacts on it, and says it’s been a gateway device for her: “My next cell will be an Android smartphone,” she says.
YOU LOOK OLD IF…
YOU CALLED THE PROJECT AN “EPIC FAIL”
It sounds natural when a young person uses a trendy term. But when said by someone middle-aged, warns New York corporate recruiter Kimberly Bishop, it comes off sounding pathetic or just plain silly — especially if you misuse a term or toss it off after its moment has passed (example: “bling bling”). You’ll just remind people of your age rather than encourage them to forget. “Even as you try to stay relevant,” says Bishop, “it’s important to maintain your authenticity.”
John Babinchak, 51
Managing director, CBR Public Relations
- He was a formal dresser at a firm of casual thirtysomethings.
- He ditched the tie to join the gang.
Know what the latest phrases mean — so you’re not insulted when a young colleague calls your work “sick.” But as for using them… don’t, says New York communications coach Meg Armstrong. She also advises eradicating 1980s and ’90s corporatespeak from your repertoire. A tortured buzzword like “impactful” is every bit as deadly (and dated) as calling someone “phat.”
YOU LOOK OLD IF…
YOU’RE ALWAYS REFERENCING THE GLORY DAYS
Among the deadliest phrases in the workplace is this one: “Let me tell you how we used to do it.” Malva Reid, 57, an HR senior director in Washington, D.C., recalls a moment recently when she regaled younger colleagues with pre-PC tales of crashing mainframe computers. “Their blank stares told me they could care less,” she says. The consequences can be worse than putting people to sleep, however. “There is a tremendous risk for experienced workers to see everything from a dated context,” says Duncan Mathison, co-author of Unlock the Hidden Job Market. He says that by championing — or even mentioning — old ways, you could be seen as out of touch and intransigent.
wants to see that you’re focused not on the past, but the future. Do this by showing you have a handle on emerging issues in your field—a perspective older workers often lose, Mathison says. You can broaden your knowledge by attending industry events, taking classes, and reading trade journals, sure. But in between, ask young colleagues for the blogs they like most, and use Google Reader (google.com/reader) to track them all in one place. Also, type your industry into Google and add “.ppt” to get a list of PowerPoint presentations — some are likely to cover hot topics in the field. Liberally drop what you learn into conversations with superiors and colleagues.
Finally, make your years of experience a plus rather than a minus; chances are good that a thorny problem vexing your younger colleagues is similar to one you’ve seen and solved a dozen times before. So offer to help — skip the “in the good old days” wind-up and instead impress them with the logic of your position and the confidence with which you deliver it. You’ll be viewed as an asset with current value vs. an artifact.
YOU LOOK OLD IF…
YOU DON’T HAVE COFFEE MACHINE CONVERSATION
Past a certain age, it’s almost cool to not care about, say, what’s on TV or the radio. It’s all garbage anyway, right? Well, you didn’t think so in the mid-1970s when you were doubled over watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show or shakin’ your groove to K.C. & the Sunshine Band. Younger people don’t think so today. “Understanding pop culture is key,” says Stephen Viscusi, author of Bulletproof Your Job. “If you don’t know what’s going on, you’re dating yourself.” You’re also missing chances to build relationships. Didn’t see Snooki get snookered on Jersey Shore? Think Lady Gaga is a brand of baby food? You’ve got no cultural capital — a lesson Michael Levine learned the hard way when he made that Caddyshack joke.
Knowing what younger co-workers are interested in gives you entrée to their conversations. But be strategic: Listen to what they’re talking about and DVR one or two shows. (You are granted dispensation to avoid Jersey Shore.) Alternatively, catch The Soup on E! on Friday night for a recap of the week’s big TV moments or read Entertainment Weekly. As for music, you may not have far to come. Howe notes that boomers and Gen Xers have a 30% overlap in iPod libraries — “and young people are learning to play Zeppelin on Guitar Hero!”
YOU LOOK OLD IF…
YOUR FASHION SENSE IS STRAIGHT OUT OF 1989
You may have ditched the power suit years ago, but if you’re still sporting a white starched shirt, a briefcase, or a tie, you’re showing your age. At most offices, every day is casual Friday. And while you may think your more formal choices are dapper, they don’t read that way, says communications coach Armstrong: “In the first five seconds people form 80% of their judgment of you.” If you dress like a stiff — in an office where that’s not the norm — you may be perceived as being rigid. That’s never a good rep for an older worker to have.
Find the right balance. There’s nothing worse than a 50-year-old man wearing an Abercrombie shirt. But in a workplace of 20- and 30-year-olds, PR pro John Babinchak ditched his tie because it made him feel older. There’s a simple rule to follow: Look at what your boss is wearing on most days and take his or her lead. In this case, it’s better to act above your pay grade.
Malva Reid, 57
HR senior director, Amtrak
- She used to talk about the good old days — when “computer” meant “CPU”- to glazed eyes.
- She doesn’t talk about the past unless making a major point.
—Additional reporting by Lauren Kelleher and Beth Braverman
When Ageism Gets Serious
Age discrimination complaints surged to a record in 2008 and declined only slightly last year, suggesting that some managers have been targeting older, costlier workers even though it’s against the law, says Laurie McCann, an attorney at AARP. The problem is, winning an age discrimination lawsuit is difficult and expensive. Taking the issue up internally can often be more effective, notes McCann. So if you suspect you were let go because of your age, try these steps first:
► Start with a big boss. Lay out your case in a polite e-mail, and send it to a division head who knows the layoffs went down but won’t want to get involved with the nitty-gritty of your case. When the exec forwards it to HR, it’ll carry greater weight than if you sent it yourself.
► Follow up with HR. Let your company know that you would prefer to settle this issue without involving lawyers, says workplace negotiation expert Alan Sklover. Ask for your job to be reinstated or for additional severance. Accepting severance can mean that you are waiving your right to sue, but if the package is large enough, that could be a decent deal.
► File a complaint. If HR won’t hear you, take your case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But don’t dawdle. Your complaint typically must be filed at a state office (find one at eeoc.gov/field) within 300 days of your termination notice. In only 40% of cases does the agency conclude discrimination occurred, and that still won’t guarantee you get compensation. But just filing can put pressure on your former employer.