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Competing with 20-something candidates as a 40- or 50-something offers the potential to stand out (in a good way)—but only if you use the right strategies. What do career experts recommend for middle-age job seekers when it comes to language, looks, and leveraging their experience? Read on for some workable job search tips for your 40’s and 50’s.
Age may be less important than energy level, enthusiasm, and attitude. Employers seek dynamic, vibrant people to help them get jobs done—and you can project these qualities at any age.
“When presenting yourself, use positive terms that are generally associated with today’s job-savvy workers, such as high energy, able to learn new systems and methods, good technology skills, flexibility, and willingness to learn new things,” says Patty Prosser, chair of OI Partners, a global career counseling firm. “Practice making a great first impression.”
Stan Kimer, president of Total Engagement Consulting, recalls competing for his first executive appointment at age 50, when many people who attain executive level achieve that appointment before age 40. His strategy? “I made sure I came across as energetic and passionate,” said Kimer. “I truly feel more important than looking young is conveying youth, vitality, and energy in the interview—and then combining that with depth and breath of skills gained during a long career. It is a winning combination.”
It may feel scary for older job seekers—such as professionals who have gone back to school later in life—to compete with younger candidates. But some recruiters and employers prefer older candidates because of the experience they bring to the table. Savvy middle-aged candidates will use this preference to their advantage.
“Emphasize the benefits that older, more skilled employees can bring to a job,” says Prosser. “These qualities include experience, maturity, work ethic, productivity, and ability to understand the big picture.” Prosser advises translating your experience into skills and accomplishments that are relevant to the particular targeted opportunity, and which will contribute to your success in the job.
Executive recruiter John Paul Engel, president of Knowledge Capital Consulting, suggests that in addition to highlighting the measurable accomplishments you have achieved related to the job you want, older candidates should also emphasize their networks. “A big part of your career as you advance is who you know. Bring that to the table,” says Engel. “The other day a candidate told me she was the wife of a long-time VP of one of my clients’ top clients. Not something I could ask, but you can bet that gave her a big plus sign next to her name.”
Using phrases that refer to your advanced years, like “back in the day,” may make you seem older to prospective employers. If this isn’t your goal, then you may want to steer clear of such terms.
In addition to staying up-to-date with current vocabulary in your industry and in technology, Patricia Siderius, a managing director with BPI group, advises avoiding reference to certain “generations.” You may not want to mention grandchildren, or that you are looking for an end-of-career job, or that you are thinking of retiring in four years,” says Siderius.
Frank Green, president of search firm ExecuSource, also advises that if the interviewer is younger, you should stay mindful of saying anything that could seem condescending, such as “I’ve been doing this since you were in elementary school.” “An interview is a time to sell yourself,” says Green. “The best way to do that is establish rapport, not by sounding like a know-it-all.”
While it may be tempting to stay in the game by mirroring the look of younger candidates around you, many career experts agree this is a mistake. “Don’t try to look 20—that can backfire on you,” says Siderius. “Age is about your own perspective—if you think you are old, you may be old.”
That said, there are things that midlife job seekers can do to improve their professional appearance and increase their chances of landing a job. “It’s not about looking ‘younger,’ but about looking professional, modern, and current,” says Lindsay Witcher, practice development manager at RiseSmart.
Green emphasizes keeping up with the basics by wearing up-to-date office attire. “I have had many candidates wear interview suits that are 10 years old and no longer fit properly,” says Green. He adds that one of the best things older job seekers can do is stay in shape. And to dye or not to dye? Our sources say yes, for both men or women—at least if it’s something you’re used to doing. “If you usually color your hair, do so and make sure it is freshly done,” says Siderius. Kimer admits that he dyed his hair to convey a more youthful appearance when competing for a job as a 50-something.
Many people in their 40s and 50s aren’t necessarily looped in on the best ways to use technology—especially when it comes to advancing their careers—according to Pati Dubroff. Dubroff has an inside perspective as a makeup artist who has worked with many 40-something professionals, including celebrities.
“An increasing number of companies are using video call services like Skype to conduct interviews—which saves travel time and money on both sides, and allows this generation to use their digital skills to their advantage.” Dubroff recommends that older job seekers take a tip from the celebs and take the time to learn Skype skills successfully so they aren’t caught off-guard in an interview situation.
Since mature job seekers are sometimes perceived as averse to technology as well as behind the curve in its use, Witcher advises becoming and staying active on social media. “Prove the naysayers wrong by having an active and robust LinkedIn profile,” says Witcher. “Not only is LinkedIn an incredible resource for any job seeker, but it is also a great way to build visibility, reinforce your brand, and project a message of being up-to-date when it comes to technology.”
While staying current on trends and tech, though, don’t forget the importance of the human touch in any job search. Engel advises mid-career professionals to make a list of all the people they enjoyed working with in their careers and have lost touch with. “Reach out to those people and see what they are doing,” says Engel. “One conversation can rekindle a relationship. People like to hire people they know and trust not bits and bytes.”