I had a pretty unsettling dream about a job search the other night. I felt like I was at a dead end in my career, and never going to work again. Sound familiar?
Dream or no dream, this is a feeling that seems very real to many people over 50 who are struggling with their job search and the new realities of the 21st century economy, ageism in hiring, and a very real need and desire to keep on working.
So in this dream, I was a candidate for what was going to be a great job at a law firm doing some kind of strategic planning work. Now, I’m actually not a lawyer, but they supposedly knew this, and were going to offer me the job anyway. Everyone I knew was very upbeat about my prospects, but I hadn’t heard from the firm since the interview (which went quite well, I thought), and I had this sinking feeling that I wasn’t going to get the job. In my dream logic, I thought, “Who am I kidding? Why would a law firm hire someone who wasn’t a lawyer?” It made no sense. So I said to myself,
“OK, I had better take my head out of the sand and think about what kind of job I could actually get.” And that’s when it hit me. “I’m 67 years old. I really need the income. If I don’t get a job – and soon – I’m going to really be in financial trouble. But where do I begin? It feels at this point like I’m starting over from scratch – when in the old days, I’d be retired by now. What kind of company is going to be looking for someone with my background and skills who’s my age? I have a pretty specialized, and kinda amorphous job history. It’s easy to see why I got the jobs that I had, and why I’ve been successful in those jobs.
“But that all happened years ago, and the reality is that I’m now a lot older, and those jobs and skill sets seem very long ago. So I imagine someone looking at my resume or my LinkedIn profile – or even extending me the courtesy of an interview – and having tremendous respect for my accomplishments and my abilities. But, with sincere regret, they tell me they have no idea how or where I could or would fit into their organization.”
Dream vs. Reality?
That’s the moment I was jolted out of my dream, enveloped by a sense of panic and the certainty that I was facing certain doom. Although it was only a dream, this same sense of futility and doubt is something that I hear from virtually everyone over 50 who signs on with me as their career coach. Despite decades of success in their field, many achievements, an extensive network of contacts, and tremendous insight about their industry, they feel adrift and disoriented when embarking on their job search. The message they’re hearing (we’re all hearing it) is the mistaken notion that older workers have had their day, and it’s time for them to move over.
There is a significant disconnect between who they’ve been and what they’ve done, and the prospect of taking all that into the future. They feel like no one wants them. They feel suddenly invisible. And they don’t know why, what happened, or what to do about it.
We Are Empowered
As I was clearing my head coming out of the dream, I remembered that I am no longer held hostage by these feelings. I have figured out a way through and beyond this sense of limitation and futility. It is a new sense of truth about how to manage my career later in life.
There is indeed another way of looking at this situation. There is another way of handling this situation. Most importantly, there is a way of winning in this situation.
The truth is not a nightmare. The truth is that we have job search options, and the first option that we have is to think of ourselves as empowered and resourceful. For anyone over 50, who has been working for the past thirty years or so, that is not an idle “feel-good” blandishment. It’s the truth.
We must first take the position that we are not meek, undeserving, embarrassed, or ashamed of who we are, or how old we are. We must clear our heads of any inaccurate perception that our age and our long resumes somehow diminish us and make us outliers in a youth-focused job market. This is the message we get from HR, from recruiters, from the majority of the corporate community. They’re all wrong.
What actually diminishes us is our lack of confidence, our lack of direction, our lack of vision. We have spent too much time following a protocol that makes fitting into a job description our number one priority. But fitting into a job description becomes more and more difficult as we get older.
First of all, most job descriptions are looking for far fewer years of experience than you possess. That means they’re looking for people who don’t know as much as you do, and who are going to be in those jobs to take direction from someone who has more years of experience. But even THAT person will likely have fewer years’ experience than you have.
Defy the Old Protocol
So what’s the alternative to the traditional protocol? Be the solution. Be the transformation. Be the product. Take back control of your job search by bringing the job to you. It could be a W2 salary gig, it may be a 1099 consulting gig. It doesn’t matter. Make yourself into a very specific expert. Own the field you want to own. Study the pain you can alleviate, the problem that you can solve, the process that you can develop, the one-step or multi-step formula that you have spent years perfecting. No niche is too small. In fact, as counter-intuitive as it may sound, the smaller the niche the better.
Reflect on the successes you’ve had and why you’ve excelled in those situations. What are the common threads? Listen to the feedback you’ve received over the years – the praise and the criticism. What does that feedback tell you? Face the setbacks that you’ve encountered. Acknowledge the mistakes that you’ve made, the relationships that you damaged or broke apart. Re-open the wounds that you’ve sustained. Remember what they felt like, even and especially if you never wanted to think about them again. Realize that you’re still standing and that they made you a stronger person.
We all learn the best lessons through adversity, so wear your mistakes, your wounds, your humiliations and defeats as the merit badges that they are. Don’t wallow in them. Don’t stay stuck in them. But acknowledge them and stand clear and step free of them.
Take the High Road
That’s the process you’ll go through to empower yourself to create a career, not simply pursue a job search. Package up that value proposition. Find the story, the narrative that best encapsulates it. If it’s something that’s truly useful, and you’ve accurately matched your mission to your market, you’ll soon be sitting in rooms where they’re hanging on your every word and bending over backwards to get you in.
Why? Because you’re the perfect fit. All of a sudden your age is not a factor because they need you for what you do and for the value you provide.
That’s the process that I remembered as I was waking up from my dream. I realized that I had all the cards; that I wasn’t interested in sucking up to get that stupid job at the imaginary law firm. I had no need or intention of fitting into their rules and procedures and hamstringing myself just to get a paycheck in the short term. And that’s what that job would have been – and what so many of those real jobs that you’re chasing are: short term solutions.
The long term solution is to cultivate the unique value proposition that you bring to the table after decades of experience and hard-won wisdom. That is the solution that will develop and build a career that you can absolutely still create even at this age. You’ve got – what? – another twenty years until you’re 70 or 75? That’s plenty of time to build a successful career doing something that you’re good at, that businesses need, and that you love doing.