In this guide, we look at employment prospects for older workers and provide some tips and advice on re-entering the workforce at age 50 and over.
Those responsible for professional recruitment generally want a strong combination of skills, experience and energy in the people they’re adding to their teams. While the hiring of older professionals may be understood as the investment in technical capability and innovation it can be, very often it is constrained by tight budgets and mistaken stereotypes of older workers as resistant to change, out-of-date with current technologies and a greater “time-off” risk due to ill-health. At worst, older workers can be seen as overqualified, not as tech-savvy as younger professionals and more expensive than their younger counterparts.
As a consequence, professionals over 50 years old can face challenges getting their foot in the door when looking for work.
Research shows that older workers bring a broad-based skill set, usually multiple experiences of major workplace change to the workplace and, in fact, take fewer days off than younger staff.
So while workplace analysts and futurists try to understand how millennials will transform the workplace in the next 20 years, demographic trends confirm that the workforce will continue to be made up of a significant proportion of older workers over this period.
The trick for business therefore is to determine how to most effectively leverage the diverse capabilities of multigenerational teams to enhance their operations and bottom line. As well as harnessing the digital disruption brought by millennials into the workplace, the reality is that it’s in the interests of businesses to recruit, train, retrain and retain older workers to bring high-level technical capability to their decision-maker roles and ensure that experience and measured risk-taking informs their innovation processes. Multigenerational teams can offer the best of all worlds with those of different ages and experiences bringing their diverse backgrounds and unique problem-solving expertise to their work.
According to experts in the area, the key to employment for 50+ workers is “anticipatory careering.” This is defined as being mindful about if, how and when your skills might become obsolete, anticipating emerging jobs and careers you can transition into and using your time, money and energy to create a balanced working life that can span beyond traditional retirement.
Many people over 50 will consider a second or “encore” career with the motivations ranging from wanting a more meaningful career, better opportunities for advancement, a better paying job or getting back to work following a redundancy.
How do you do the preparation to put yourself in a position that you’re using your skill set and experience in a way that means you can make a valuable contribution in your current or a new field?
To work out where your encore career might sit, you’ll need to begin by “building self-knowledge”. As a starting point, this will involve a review of your skill set that goes beyond what you like to do or the work you’ve done in the past. You need to assess your skills and determine those that you have that are transferable and how they might be applied in different areas or sectors or with different groups. Reflect on the skills you’ve acquired throughout your professional career and your personal life – everything as specific and eclectic as mentoring young traffic engineers to survival skills camping with the family to being a foodie – make a list and consider honestly the skills and areas you’ve worked in in the past that you don’t want to focus on, those that you do want to further develop as well as new areas in which you might deploy them. Look at where the gaps might be and the type of development you could undertake to fill them.
It is worth taking the time to undertake a self-assessment of the personal qualities you demonstrated in your previous roles that show versatility and agility. These core professional qualities stay with you and can be the foundation-stone of your encore career. They are enduring and transferable; for example, commitment to high standards, ability to work under pressure and ability to relate to a wide range of personalities.
The professional core qualities you might consider important as you build your self-knowledge can include but are not limited to being:
- a lifelong learner;
- an effective problem-solver;
- a team player;
- an independent thinker;
- a respected leader;
- an influential communicator;
- a creative innovator;
- a competent business analyst;
- a productive networker; and
- a sought-after advisor.
These are skills you can emphasise in an interview or on a resume and illustrate with examples from your previous role/s.
It’s important to remember that core professional qualities are different from, yet have a significant bearing on, specialist technical expertise. When you are clear on the constituents of your core qualities, you are well-placed to keep them in mind and pay attention to developing them further in parallel with technical capability. For more info in this area, read Versatility and reinventing yourself in the workplace.
It will be up to you to explain to a potential employer the value you can bring to their operations and make your age a positive rather than a negative. Here are some ideas you can draw on:
- corporate memory
- learning from earlier mistakes
- good understanding and knowledge of longer-term trends, strategies, rhythms and other cycles
- knowledge of the history of particular problems, what leads to the problems, what mistakes have been made before, knowledge of incident history which includes why a process is done a particular way
- the ability to advise on where a particular approach went wrong in the past and make recommendations as to how to avoid those pitfalls when a similar approach is tried
- knowledge of previous trials and initiatives which tend to get lost through IT and filing systems changes
- extensive – broad and deep – networks to bring to the role
- well-developed networking skills
- able to be less risk averse
- good understanding of risks and reasonable decisions
- understanding of long-term risks
- well-developed professional judgement
- perspective and balanced views
- customer connections
- can relate to customers of similar age
Skills and knowledge transfer
- transfer of ‘tacit’ knowledge
- sharing of collective wisdom which is experiential and often not committed in writing
- able to recognise unmet needs
- understand how to harness economic potential
- ingenuity – used to undertaking creative endeavours
Research has overwhelming shown that diverse teams consistently outperform in the areas of innovation, problem-solving, flexibility and decision-making but also that diverse teams can be more difficult to manage than those characterised by uniformity and similarity between team members. Being aware of both these facts and having practical options for getting the most out of multi-generational teams will give you a valuable edge. For further information, read our titles How can I manage them, they’re all older than me, How can I manage them, they’re all more qualified than me, Managing diversity and Making the most of generational differences.
If you haven’t done psychometric testing or DISC profiling before, it might be a worthwhile investment of time and effort. It can help you work out what your particular strengths and weaknesses are and work to your strong points. Do the work – find out what your priorities are and what your personality type is – if you’ve been too busy working to do this in the past, take the opportunity to do it now. Check out the free psychometric testing guide here and free DISC profile tool here. Being clear about what you want in a professional role, what your priorities are and what you’re suited to will work to your advantage as you transition to a new job.
No matter what stage you are at in your career you need to keep your tech skills up-to-date – even more so if you’re trying to demonstrate to an employer as a +50 worker that you’re still tech savvy and have kept up with new software in your field. As a minimum, make sure you have a smart phone, can get email on it, know how to text and make and receive calls, take photos and do a Google search. Work with the settings on your iPad, become familiar with the settings on YouTube such as the security settings to get a feel for them, set up your own website, work with your Facebook security settings and play with the settings on your phone. The deeper your understanding of modern software systems, the more you can be a problem-solver and the more desirable you will be to employers/recruiters. Experts suggest volunteering for technical projects that will expose you to coding or software you haven’t worked with before and then applying that knowledge to a project of your own to put it into practice. While this may be a step too far for some, remaining relevant and having the tech skills to back it up is the key.
As well as your technical skills, keep in mind the need to update and practice your soft skills such as doing presentations, resolving conflict, critical thinking skills, time management, problem-solving and being a team player.
Business acumen, the ability to comprehend and deal with business situations so that the best possible outcome is achieved, has historically been regarded as far less important for technical experts including professionals in the so-called ‘support’ roles like HR, finance and IT. Traditionally, for professionals in these areas, business acumen has been seen as necessary only for those with management potential. In the current employment market however, profit-making businesses, the public sector and not-for-profit organisations alike are under intense pressure to improve productivity, reduce costs and compete effectively. Increasingly there is a need for technologists to be business literate, regardless of whether they aspire to management roles. Being up-to-date with business language and concepts, acronyms and basic business strategy will allow you to show an employer that you understand how technical capability should be supplemented by business acumen to contribute maximum value. If you need help in these areas, read our guides to project management, strategic planning, corporate sustainability, strategic perspectives on technology and financial management.
As a +50 professional, there’s no doubt you must consider a great deal more than the way you dress to create the image by which you want to be judged including how you behave, what you say, the attitudes you express and the opinions you share. Nonetheless, how you dress is an essential part of how you present yourself because it conveys a lot about your professionalism, your character, values, work ethic and potential as a future employee. All the basic rules apply – be confident in your attire, err on the side of conservative rather than the outlandish even if it’s with a statement piece to help you stand out, and fit in with the potential future employer’s dress code (read more about managing your image for career success here).
50+ women can face different challenges to men in the workplace and in gaining a job as an older worker. Read advice and tips here.
Clearly networking will be fundamental to getting work for +50 professionals. According to organisation development consultant Janet Fitzell, you need to:
- network within your industry and profession;
- network more broadly with a mind open to possibilities; and
- develop an awareness of other sectors where your skills are relevant.
And the obvious link is that networking enables you to access the hidden job market.
The hidden job market refers to existing and forthcoming vacancies which are not managed in ways that would allow them to come to your attention through formal advertising processes involving recruitment firms, on-line posts and newspaper advertisements. The hidden job market includes jobs that:
- are intentionally promoted by word of mouth only;
- will be newly created due to an organisation restructure but for a range of reasons can’t yet be formally advertised;
- are likely to become available due to staff movements but are unlikely to be formally advertised;
- are so specialised that the employer believes there will be very few suitable candidates and wants to minimise recruitment costs; or
- exist in firms that generally prefer to avoid the cost of recruitment firms or commercial advertising.
Recruitment and human resources experts promote the idea that well over half of all vacancies are never formally advertised so the hidden job market is assumed to be larger than the ‘visible’ one. However, it’s important to be aware that a significant proportion of the hidden jobs may not be accessible if the employer is intent on making an internal appointment. This aspect can also mean that networking with your former employer if you can is as important as external networking.
With greater numbers of workers engaged in freelance arrangements, on short-term contracts or working casual to show their capabilities, accept that the work you take on may look different to the full-time employment you’ve had previously. If what you’re looking for is full-time work, set yourself a period of time in which you’ll accept that the arrangements may be different so you can demonstrate your value to an organisation and if you’re not satisfied within that period of time, ask the employer to sign off on a statement or reference verifying the skills you’ve brought to the workplace and move on to other opportunities to broaden your skills.
Depending on where you’ve worked previously and in what type of role, you may have become used to earnings at a particular level and the idea of an annual pay rise. According to Roy Bahat, head of Bloomberg Beta and co-chair of The Shift Commission on Work, Workers and Technology, in future “the idea that we have a steadily advancing pay scale will be questioned. People will be paid based on what they can do. This may be particularly true for professionals. White-collar workers who are downsized or displaced will be more likely to find replacement jobs, but often for less money.”
Undertaking professional development in the gap areas you’ve identified may be of benefit so you can demonstrate that you’re an active lifelong learner as well as gaining the actual skills and knowledge from the training/development activity.
The Professionals Australia Mature Aged Workers survey found that because agencies would often screen out older applicants even if they had the right skill mix, older professionals were much more likely to get a foot in the door if they approached an employer directly. Recruitment agencies were very often regarded as a barrier to re-entry to the workforce.
To maximise your chances of getting through to interview stage, you need to update your resume.
As a starting point you should modify references to employment too long ago to be relevant that might turn an employer off. Experts generally suggest going back 15 years is sufficient and rather than saying you have 20-25 years’ experience, it is preferable to say “over 15 years’ experience”. You should include interests that demonstrate physical fitness and energy such as gym, hiking, jogging, etc. Some HR advisors suggest putting the actual dates of employment further back in the resume so the employer has a chance to envision you in the role before doing the maths and calculating your age based on your employment stints. The same goes for education dates with graduation years up front making it easy for the employer to calculate age before reading about the skills and experience you would bring to a role. Make sure any recent training, professional development and/or certifications are included to demonstrate that you’re up-to-date and committed to lifelong learning. Make sure references to older software programs are deleted – knowing Microsoft Office is a given these days. It is worth mentioning if you have advanced skills in Excel, survey software, statistical packages, technical software packages, web development or any Microsoft certifications you have if they might be relevant to the role.
Wherever possible, link your experience and career accomplishments to the value you can offer an employer – failing to do this work yourself means you put an obstacle between you and the employer assessing your versatility and potential value to their organisation – and it gives them an excuse to put your application on the ‘No’ pile and move on to the next. With greater experience, you’re likely to have added value in ways the employer may not have anticipated and solve problems they may not have foreseen – so highlight your career achievements to show you understand what’s needed, the high-level skills you have, that you can hit the ground running and the value you can add immediately.
If you’re on Facebook, make sure you’re satisfied that everything there is appropriate and doesn’t help an employer stereotype you.
AARP.org suggests that:
- you should explain that you believe your age would be an asset, you are eager to learn and it doesn’t matter who helps you. Describe recent experiences, whether at work or in other situations, where age diversity has been an asset;
- you understand the rules about age discrimination – it’s not illegal to be asked your age [it is illegal to be discriminated against because of your answer] – but the question could be a red flag about the employer’s commitment to age diversity (note that if you’re not sure what your rights are, you can contact the Professionals Australia Workplace Advice and Support team to clarify);
- if you’ve been with past employers for long periods of time, you should discuss how much you’ve learned during this tenure and make the point that it shows you’re a loyal employee;
- prepare an answer for the “Aren’t you overqualified for this position?” question; and
- finally, pay attention to your interview attire. You should make sure that your interview clothes fit with the culture and that you don’t stand out too much — especially if you’re interviewing at a company made up of younger workers.
The bottom line, AARP suggests, is to turn your age into an asset by showing that you have vast work experience and knowledge that a younger worker can’t gain without the experience. This, they say, is your biggest asset.
In an interview, it’s also worth making the point that you’re physically fit and active, that you take public transport as an indicator that you’re out there and that you’re prepared to travel if needed. You should also prepare answers to questions about your tech/computer skills, your salary expectations, whether you’d work well with other generations and how you feel about being one of the few older workers on the team.
For further info on age-proofing your resume and preparing for interview, click here.
Good luck with your job hunting!!
There are some great Australian and International resources designed to support job seekers including:
- BeNext – an online mature age job and career centre supporting job seekers and people wanting to be connected and engaged in work.
- AARP – a nonprofit, nonpartisan organisation that helps people turn their goals and dreams into real possibilities. Online services include expert advice for a reimagined retirement, advice on tackling an intergenerational office, and tips for becoming a mentor.
- Your Life Choices – Offering tools and advice to ‘simplify retirement’ and senior years employment by helping you to understand your rights and options while enjoying life.
- Work Force 50 – A career site for boomers, seniors and experienced workers. Offering information for those considering a career change or job transition.
- SEEK – A group of companies that have a unified purpose to help people live more fulfilling and productive working lives.
Professionals Australia would like to acknowledge the assistance of Dr. Janet Fitzell in producing this article (e: firstname.lastname@example.org).
 King, J. (2005). Benefits of Women in Science, Science 308: 601.
 Fitzell, J. (2015). Career Planning – a dynamic approach. Available at http://www.professionalsaustralia.org.au/blog/career-planning-a-dynamic-approach/.
 Professionals Australia (2015). Wasted Potential: the critical role of an experienced professional workforce in facing our key economic challenges, p.19. Available at http://www.professionalsaustralia.org.au/professional-women/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2014/03/Wasted-potential-the-critical-role-of-an-experienced-professional-workforce-in-facing-our-key-economic-challenges.pdf.
 AARP – available at https://www.aarp.org/work/job-hunting/info-07-2008/10_tough_interview_questions.html.