Jobs Guru Spills Secrets About Older Workers

Award-winning journalist Kerry Hannon offers some insight about the types of jobs the gray-haired set can expect to find in the coming years.

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Workers 55 and older are expected to be the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. labor force this decade, and it’s not solely because of Baby Boomers are graying. A greater-than-expected number of Americans are staying on the job longer or returning to work after a long absence—some because of Empty Nest Syndrome, others because of financial need and still others looking for meaning as they age. But whatever the impetus, navigating late-stage career paths presents particular challenges, ranging from outright ageism to a host of stereotypes about older workers.  Curiously, there aren’t many good books targeted at this crowd, but a strong one has just been published, written by the award-winning journalist Kerry Hannon. It’s called  AARP’s Great Jobs For Everyone 50+and we asked Hannon about what she learned from her research into this employment demographic.

What is the most surprising thing about older workers you learned while researching this book?

“Senior entrepreneurship. I am struck again and again by the number of 50+ workers fed up with the job hunt, or looking for something that really kicks them out the door in the morning, who are starting or planning to start their own businesses.”

What’s driving that trend?

“Truth is, some of this emboldened entrepreneurism stems from being frustrated by the tight job market. The refrain I hear a lot is, ‘I doubt I can get a full-time job at an employer these days…’ You know, ageism, the sense that there’s expiration date stamped on their forehead and so on. But a major driver is a genuine desire to try something new. Midstream career rocking is a reality. It might be a job loss that spurred it, but often is is a personal crisis: a health scare, losing someone close to you, too soon, too young. And many senior entrepreneurs not only want to be their own boss, they are looking at these as legacy businesses.

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What’s a “legacy business?”

“Where they work side-by-side with their twenty-something children. For the somewhat older folks I have interviewed, even grandchildren are in on the new endeavor. It’s kind a cool combination of enthusiasm and expertise. It takes aim at the older-younger worker schism and—bingo!—here’s a great solution. Tech-savvy, nimble youth blends with the deep knowledge gleaned from decades of honing skills that the older worker brings to the party.”

Is the definition of retirement changing?

“The overriding trend that jumped out at me is how many people don’t ever see themselves retiring in the way our parents did. I’ve interviewed and coached people from 50 to 80, and it’s not the fear of running out of money in their old age that’s lighting a fire. They are generally enthusiastic about their work lives, don’t view themselves as older workers and can’t imagine a time when they didn’t work and earn income in some fashion. The underlying spine is they want to find work that means something to them where they feel valued and relevant, and that can be tricky. That’s why many of the jobs in my book  are part-time and can be expanded to full-blown second acts too.

Is there a correlation between education and post-50 employment?  

“Not necessarily. I think the big differentiation is the willingness to try new ways of work—an open mind about what work they want to do, and breaking out of old expectations and patterns. And frankly, for the professional types there is plenty of opportunity if they are willing to step into a new field—redeploying current skills by, say, moving to a nonprofit or health care field buy using financial and accounting skills.”

But we do hear a lot about an education gap between workers and jobs.

“For nonprofessionals, the community college system offers some low-cost educational opportunities to shift direction with certificate programs and so forth.”

What stereotypes about older workers are generally not true?

“That they are luddites when it comes to technology, that they don’t have the energy to commit for the long haul and that they don’t want to work with younger workers. Not true.  They may, however, be a little more resistant to change.”

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Are older workers generally good at marketing themselves?

“Boomers are bad at bragging. The hardest thing for many of them is toot their own horn—brag about their skills. The younger generation is far better at self-promotion. Workers in this age cadre somehow feel someone will look a their experience on their resume and get why they would be a great person to hire.”

Is it wrong to assume that your resume should let people know why you’re a strong candidate for a job?

“Experience doesn’t get you a job. Skills do. That’s what people need to sell hard and shamelessly. Employers want someone who can solve their problem right now; no handholding, no investment needed in training. If you can show how your skills can do that, whom you worked for five years ago is a sidebar.”

In other words, talk about what you can do more than what you’ve done or where you’ve done it.

“It can even be soft skills. One woman I met with recently said she landed a job by simply saying one of her old bosses told her that her best skill was her ability to get along with people. That throw-away line is what caught the hiring manager’s attention and she got the job.If you aren’t sure what your best skills are. Ask someone. That’s what’s transferable.”