An Antidote to Ageism

posted by Dilip on January 21, 2019

“Age to me means nothing. I can’t get old; I’m working. I was old when I was twenty-one and out of work. As long as you’re working, you stay young. When I’m in front of an audience, all that love, and vitality sweeps over me and I forget my age.”— George Burns 

As a career and life coach I often get prospects calling me about their apprehensions as they cross certain age-thresholds: 40, 45, 50 and then 60. I do not know what it is about these birthdays that shake people to their core and they start thinking about their age and how it is going to impact their career and their ability to retire on their terms. These age thresholds are not particular to either gender; I get both men and women calling when they reach these milestones about their concerns to continue on their career path and how to deal with their inevitable retirement, which they all want on their own terms.

This age consciousness cuts both ways: too young or too old to respond to certain jobs and being able to qualify as a worthy candidate. A few years back I gave a seminar titled, How to deal with ageism in the Silicon Valley. Although 90% of the participants were in their 40s and 50s, I was surprised to see a few in their early 20s attending the same seminar. Before the I began to speak, I approached them during the meet-and-greet period and asked, out of curiosity, what prompted them to come to this seminar. Their response was simple and direct: We thought that this seminar was designed for those who are seen as too young to qualify for some jobs in the Valley. So, I guess both sides of the age spectrum have their own perspective on what ageism is in today’s work ethos, especially in the Silicon Valley!

Coming back to the topic of ageism: Although these concerns are valid on their face, if you look deeper into what causes many professionals to worry about age discrimination, it is not their age, but it is their value proposition and it is how they carry their age into their job and into their job interviews.

Let me explain:

When I was first laid-off I was 49 and was heading an engineering department at a high-tech company. I then wondered how I was going to get my next job at the same level and opportunities as the one I’d just lost. More importantly, I asked myself, What was I going to do if the same thing happened to me at 59 or 69. How was I then going to market myself in a job market that would be then looking for those with knowledge of technologies yet to be revealed and brought into the mainstream of our everyday lives?

 Frankly, I did not have an answer to that question, so I decided to take a different route to address my immediate problem; I decided to re-invent myself and go in a new direction.

I decided that continuing the status-quo and going after a VP-engineering role was not a sustainable solution to my career salvation based on the fact that I did not want to retire, but to keep working. Rather, I needed to go in a new and different direction leveraging what I had mastered to get to that stage in an entirely different vertical, where it would still be valued.

So, I decided to pursue opportunities in biotech and pitched an idea to the CEO of a biotech company that was struggling to get an important innovation to market and lead the AIDs diagnostic instrument space, widely open to many such players at the time (1989). Using my product-development successes in high-tech I was able to persuade that CEO for me to take charge of their ambitious plan to bring this innovation to market. Luckily, he believed in me and I was engaged for three years at that biotech company and we were able to get that important innovation to market, ahead of anyone else.

Since that career escapade I’ve come to realize that too often we get so entrenched in our ongoing pursuits that we identify ourselves with them—even become them! Once you get into this mindset it is difficult to extricate yourself and see yourself as something other than what you do. Your identity becomes what you do and not who you are.

Since that exercise in self-innovation I have changed three more careers and now I am in my fifth as a career and life coach. My specialty has become career re-invention and I’ve helped many go through the process of re-invention and help them go in a direction that they felt would be possible for them. Once you take on this mantle and mindset age becomes irrelevant. The most recent use case is that of a 73-year old senior technology professional, who was laid-off when his company restructured. He had never looked for a job before, yet we were able to find him something that he thought would be out of his reach. He is now happily engaged in his “new” career with all his spirit and energy.

So, what is the “secret” to staying evergreen in your professional life and making age irrelevant in your career pursuits? Here is what I practice and preach in my coaching sessions:

  1. Engage in your job 100% and keep on creating new value at every turn. The moment you feel stagnation you must make an effort to find yourself a new career path to reinvigorate your job and your career. Do not wait for it to happen; make it happen by taking charge.
  2. Make an audit of how your career is evolving and where it is headed. Do not let others—especially your bosses—dictate how they want to mold your career. Make your own career plan and make that plan happen with diligence and hard work.
  3. Do not just go to work to bring home a paycheck. Constantly be on the lookout to see what is new; and how it’s shaping jobs and companies around you. In the ‘70s I remember seeing a billboard on 101 near Sunnyvale, which I’ll never forget: “Some make it happen, others watch it happen, and the rest wonder what just happened. Come join us and make it happen.” Then there was the company logo and about how to contact them, etc. Always be someone who makes it happen!
  4. Harness your passions early on as you start your career, right after graduation. It is not uncommon to land a job that you are not sure about—few are at that stage in their lives—and engage all your energies and focus in making something of yourself even in that job. Many find their passions late in life, but how they engage themselves early in their careers shapes their destinies, not so much by what they did, but by how they did it. The same recipe must apply later in any career.
  5. Do not focus on title and salary; focus more on responsibilities and what value you are adding at any stage in your career. If you keep getting bigger salaries without being able to deliver commensurate value, it is a sure recipe for a lay-off when things get tight.
  6. Always keep your résumé current and pitched to tomorrow and not yesterday. Always keep that message ready for your next job, not to merely reflect your last job.
  7. Learn how to tell great leadership stories about accomplishments in your résumé, and not merely list your job duties in your current or previous jobs. Very few know how to clearly write and articulate their leadership narrative in compelling ways that makes them marketable through their résumé or LinkedIn Profile.
  8. Keep your social and professional network vibrant, growing, and relevant. Do not merely invite those with whom you work; invite those with whom you want to be working and want to be seen with.
  9. Keep your professional edge by updating your skills, getting new certifications, and by participating in professional activities that keep visible to those in your profession. Keep active speaking, blogging, and publishing in the right channels.
  10. As I have written many times before, change employers every 3-5 years, change jobs every 5-7 years, and change careers every 10 or so years.

If you keep practicing these ten behaviors, you’ll never grow old and will always find yourself meaningful ways to engage yourself and reward yourself!

Good luck!