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Margie had just received some news that would rock her world. After 25 years in one organisation, rising up through the ranks from a fledgling graduate to a senior executive, she was unexpectedly dismissed. Like a house built on poor foundations, she felt her career crumbling in front of her eyes. She was in her 50’s and still had at least 15 years of productive, energetic working life ahead of her. However she was afraid that she would be considered too old to be given another chance in the job market.
You may have heard similar stories from friends, or it may have happened to you. This fear is real. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, 71% of complaints made by people over the age of 45 about age discrimination were in the area of employment. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) defines a mature worker as anyone over 45 years of age so it is not surprising that if you are over 50 in the workplace you will be considered old. Yet here is the conundrum – the 55-year plus age bracket is the fastest growing age group in Australian society – we are considered too old in a workplace that is ageing anyway.
The Oxford dictionary selected post-truth as the 2016 word of the year, thanks to its frequent reference in the EU referendum in the UK, and the US presidential election. In a post-truth world appealing to emotion and personal belief is more important in shaping public opinion than objective facts.
How true for people like Margie. Workplaces are filled with myths and stereotypes about older workers that are based on emotionally charged reasons, rather than objective facts. Margie is likely to be seen as less dynamic and creative than younger people, as someone who will want to work less hours, that she is not technologically savvy, that she will retire soon, her skills will be out-of-date or she will be denying younger workers a job.
These ageist biases and stereotypes cut many ways. On the one hand older workers experience longer periods of unemployment when out of work. On the other hand employers deny themselves access to an enormous talent pool by overlooking mature workers. Underutilized resources may also have flow-on effects to the Australian economy by limiting productivity and growth.
Now, back to Margie. She had to admit she was struggling at social gatherings. Immediately after the first obvious question of “pleased to meet you” she could no longer readily answer the inevitable next question “What do you do for a living?”
This experience led her to reflect deeply on some heart-felt questions, like: Who is the real me? What gives me joy and fulfillment? To what extent has work defined me? Who am I without a job? How do I want to spend the next two decades of my life?
Margie came to realise she still loved work, had boundless energy and was driven to succeed. But she needed to respond to the skeptics, bust the myths about age and demonstrate her ongoing value to employers.
Margie invested in a career coach who encouraged her to consider new possibilities, challenged her thinking and coached her in a range of practical job search skills. They worked together to identify four key priorities:
- Rather than seeing her age as a liability, she focused on the benefits and advantages her age brings an employer, such as:
- With Australia’s ageing population companies need to reflect their customer base, which is ageing
- Companies will experience a greater return on investment by employing someone with her wealth of experience – she is a safe pair of hands, she can work faster, more efficiently and can be an excellent coach or mentor for younger workers.
- While she expects to be paid market value, annual salary increases or quick promotions are not much of a driving force anymore
- She is still highly energetic and committed, loyal and mature in outlook
- Older workers have lower turnover than younger staff. An employer can expect Margie to remain loyal for at least 10 years (compared to millennials, who are the most likely generation to switch jobs).
- With fewer family commitments she is available to travel, work non-standard hours and be on call.
- She structured her resume thoughtfully by:
- Clarifying her offer. She focused on how she could differentiate herself utilising her breadth and depth of experience and her unique set of skills, then prepared her resume around a strong elevator pitch and three or four supporting key messages.
- Using her track record and accomplishments she demonstrated that her skills are still highly relevant, she is energetic, continuously learning and staying abreast of market trends.
- Becoming active on social media, she created a strong LinkedIn profile, contributed to on-line discussions and regularly posted blogs.
- She developed a target list of organisations and roles that would value mature workers like Margie and the experience they bring:
- She reviewed the diversity and inclusion statements of target organisations and analysed the age, gender and cultural profile of their key leaders to identify genuine diversity in age, gender, culture and other factors
- She identified industries that value the maturity that executives in their 50s bring – including the government, not-for-profit and health and aged care sectors, executive search (several firms were very interested in her extensive corporate network) and management consulting.
- She began to consider broader possibilities, pursuing Board directorships, taking on contract work or interim executive roles, starting her own business or undertaking lecturing at one of the universities.
- Margie shifted her mindset and conducted her job search like any other successful executive, regardless of her age.
- She began to expand her network and utilised it extensively to hone her value proposition to the market, gain market intelligence and uncover potential employment opportunities
- She became selective about applying for roles, preferring to apply for the right roles rather than any roles to retain her self-esteem and build her confidence.
- She developed relationships with a small number of professional executive selection and search firms who advocated on her behalf.
- She investigated completing a Board governance program.
With her value proposition clear, her résumé in good shape, her networks engaged and her target organisations identified, Margie took a six-month career break. She and her partner travelled to a little village in northern Italy, took Italian lessons and enjoying the food and the lifestyle only Italy can offer – something she’s always wanted to do. There’s nothing like a long break to re-energise, reconnect with her authentic self and refocus on what is really important.
If you are at a crossroads and ready to invest achieving career success, contact Norah Breekveldt, Director of Ampersand Advisory at (03) 9008 5111 or firstname.lastname@example.org
 Willing to Work Factsheet, Australian Human Rights Commission, https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/disability-rights/publications/willing-work-national-inquiry-employment-discrimination