Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Midlife Job Insecurity: New Career Moves for a Changing World

There was a time when career success and stability all came down to a few basics: showing up, working hard and treating others with respect.

In these far more uncertain times, you can do everything right -- and still find yourself in a precarious position on the job -- or out in the cold, looking for a job in the worst market in years. Add to these challenges being over 50 and you're looking at a rough road ahead.

So what can you do to smooth the way to more job security? Or to find a job in this unpromising economic climate?

If you still have a job, but are worried:
  • Take a look around at what skills are most needed in your workplace and update your skill set ASAP!  One of the assumptions that make those over 50 most vulnerable to layoffs and last to be hired is that of obsolescence.  Those of us who started using computers in adulthood aren't likely to have the fearlessness of the generations who have never known a world without personal computers. But you can become good -- very good -- at current applications with some extra effort. If your company offers skills enhancement classes, take them! If not, seek skill-building at your local community college or Regional Occupational Center.  Yes, it takes time -- and who among us has an excess of free time these days? But updating your skills now can save you a lot of time and trouble later -- when you're trying to stay relevent and employable in your current workplace or get hired for a new job. A commitment to learn new skills is always a plus.
  • Put a lid on bad habits immediately.  You want to be noticed for your positive on-the-job contribution, not for the ways that you're trouble. If you like office gossip, strive to keep your mouth closed (but your ears open). If you have a grievance, think twice about airing it.  I once had a patient I'll call Sue who was 65, single and struggling to stay at a job she needed for economic survival. It was clear from what she was telling me that she was being marginalized and culled from the pack for eventual layoff.  Sue knew her job was in jeopardy. But, day to day, what galled her most was the difference between the way her boss treated her and the way he treated a young co-worker.  "He busts me if I'm even a minute late," she would say. "But Patti can waltz in an hour late and he doesn't say a word to her except give her a friendly greeting. It's not fair! It hurts my feelings when my boss plays favorites." She wondered how she could best complain about this unfair treatment. I told her that, considering her circumstances, the main task here was job survival, not fair treatment -- and that what she needed to be concerned about was her own punctuality improvement and flawless job performance.
  • Make the best of a bad situation while exploring your options.  These days, unfortunately, it's especially risky to give your demanding or unfair or clueless or (fill in the blank) new boss a piece of your mind and a quick tutorial on how things used to be or should be.  Keep a low profile, do as you're told and quietly explore your options.  My friend Wendy, whose beloved, longtime boss retired, found his replacement to be "totally from hell...couldn't stand the woman...and couldn't hide what I felt."  And Wendy's new boss, exasperated with her sullen, uncooperative attitude, quickly fired her.  Wendy was doing a lot of things right behind the scenes -- networking, exploring other job openings within the organization, updating her resume. But she forgot one thing: to make a real effort to work well with her new boss, no matter how impossible she might have been, until she had a firm offer for another job.
  • Emphasize the value of your current skills and flexibility, not your years of experience. There is a sentiment that what you can offer now rather than what you have done in the past is most valuable in a lot of workplaces today. Put too much emphasis on your years of experience and your boss or management may begin to see you as a part of the past rather than the future.
  • Help others whenever you can: If a colleague or a friend asks you for a job lead or recommendation, give it! It feels good to help -- and, who knows? Maybe this person can help you down the line when your positions might be reversed.
If you're job-hunting (either hoping to make a change or currently unemployed):
  • Assume that, because you're middle-aged or beyond, your job search will take longer -- so start it sooner rather than later!  Some newly unemployed midlife workers decide to take a vacation to nurse bruised feelings or consider new directions or just relax from work stress for awhile. The problem is, without a plan or some structure, this time off can stretch into a long period of non-productiveness, depression and anxiety. Decide, if possible, even before a layoff, which direction you might like to go -- and get a head start on acquiring new skills or education while you still have a regular income. If a layoff has caught you by surprise, devise a job hunting plan before depressed inertia hits -- and stick to your plan.
  • Network! This is particularly important when you're older and it's just too easy for HR departments to toss your resume in the dreaded circular file when they detect or suspect that you're over 50. Someone who knows your strengths can help you overcome this common obstacle. Spread the word to friends, relatives, former co-workers, friends of friends, anyone and everyone who could help. This isn't a time to be embarrassed about your unemployed status or disinclination to bother people.  When I was 47 and looking to return to graduate school for a degree in clinical psychology and the required clinical training for licensure, I knew I needed a reliable job -- and freelance writing could no longer be it -- to pay the all too predictable tuition and living expenses. To my surprise, despite excellent credentials, prospective employers were uniformly unenthusiastic: "You're over-qualified!" "You'd be bored. You wouldn't stay." or, my personal favorite, "So you've written a bunch of books. So what? We need someone who can write a press release!"  I finally sent a resume in response to a blind ad in the newspaper for a staff job at an educational institution. I got an invitation to interview, my first in months. And when I arrived at the interview, I was met by Marilyn, a psychologist whose name I recognized immediately, and who said: "I know you. You interviewed me for one of your books thirteen years ago. I can't believe you're looking for a job, but let's talk."  And after assuring her that I would, indeed, stay even if I were to sell another book, I was hired (and ended up staying eight years).  Marilyn had pulled my resume out of 178 received for this less than exciting job because she recognized my name. Although I couldn't claim credit for networking, it gave me new respect for this practice -- and I made use of this in subsequent job-hunting efforts.
  • Stay positive and connected with others:  Keep your spirits up by keeping in touch with family, friends and former co-workers. Spend too much time alone and you can fall into feelings of failure, anger and despair. Rejection hurts. Assumptions and obnoxious comments from prospective employers can enrage you. Don't dwell on these -- but on the support and love you share with so many people in your life.
  • Consider interim work while you look for that permanent job.  One of the more distasteful trends in employment today is the emphasis on temps, part-time and contract workers without benefits. You might not want to be in this situation long-term, but short-term, it can be a foot in the door at a company or a chance to see the inner workings, politics and possibilities at a variety of companies. It can also be a way to show an employer, more than your resume can, just what an asset you can be.
  • Consider turning a hobby into a full or part-time career.  That little business you've always had or wanted to have on the side may turn into a new career or bring in some needed cash.  My friend Robert, a long-time newspaper editor in Chicago, once told me that he saw "the creeping intern scourge" increasingly at his newspaper: instead of hiring new reporters or editors as regular employees, management decided to hire "interns" on two-year contracts without benefits. He said that he had long been thinking of starting a gift shop as well as online shopping site that would appeal to pet lovers.  Not long after that, he convinced his skeptical but game wife Mary to run the shop and work with him on the website while he continued to work at the newspaper. Over several years, both gift shop and online shopping site were successful. And when newspaper management finally offered Robert a separation package he couldn't refuse, he went happily to work in the shop with his wife. "And I haven't missed my former career for a minute," he says. "I'm just so thankful -- especially to my wife and also to my own foresight -- that I had this new venture waiting for me."
The seriousness of the current economic and job situation is a fact of life.  And the special challenges of workers and job-hunters over 50 can also be daunting. Job stability in 2010 takes much more than just showing up and working hard. But with hard work --on the job and looking for a job -- is still a major asset. With the addition of help from friends and family, a plan,  and a positive attitude, you can make a new beginning!

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