Maintain Professional Relevance At Any Age

Tips to help you combat subtle age discrimination no matter your age

Thinking of the next big idea
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You can maintain relevance no matter your age and no matter how subtly age discrimination permeates your workplace.

Age discrimination is prevalent even in workplaces that commit to non-discriminatory practices. Age discrimination, like other forms of discrimination, is relevant, prevalent, illegal, subtle and preventable.

Employers can take steps to guard against age discrimination, too, but much of the onus belongs to the individual. After all, you have the most to lose.

If you work and you're over age 40, age discrimination is a real possibility. You can't change the attitudes and beliefs, that coworkers may be unaware they exhibit or feel, but you can combat subtle discrimination by the actions you take in your workplace.

Begin by staying up-to-date; there are so many new things you need to keep up with to stay relevant in your workplace. If you're unemployed, it's even more difficult–yes, that person interviewing you is younger than your daughter and just as smart. And, yes, she is worrying that you are older than all of your potential coworkers.

She may not know that her thoughts are discriminatory, but subtle age discrimination may be coloring her perceptions of your ability to fit within the company's work culture.

Sure, workplaces accord some respect to white hair–men's white hair more than women's, unfortunately, but appearance, still rules. According to a Newsweek magazine poll, beauty is worth a lot when 84% of people surveyed think others are hesitant to hire a person who looks a lot older than their coworkers. The same poll says we dislike fat people and that women, especially, need to work on their appearance to look relevant and promotable at work.

Tips for Older Workers to Maintain Relevance at Work

Dana Anspach suggests that a youthful appearance can add years to your career and thousands of dollars to your income. Here are thoughts on maintaining relevance at work no matter your age.

  • Maintain a youthful appearance–not too young–but youthful, with modern clothes and a current hairstyle. (No salon-administered, tiny, tight blue curls allowed.)
    When hiring for multiple positions, our young HR administrative assistant always flagged us about her first impressions of our candidates. Whispering to me, one day, she said, "Gosh, this one's really old." When we saw the candidate, we caught her meaning right away and it had nothing to do with age.
    The better word was dated. Everything about the candidate was dated: long hair cut straight across halfway down her back; scuffed accessories; skirted, pinstriped suit with a polyester bow tied around the neck that screamed the 1980s; and a sad, slouched posture which made her look and seem forgettable. Dated.
  • Accessories matter. You need to look pulled together with attractive shoes, handbag, portfolio, and jewelry. No scuffed, torn, broken, or outdated accessories allowed. That grandma catch all, that you call a purse, dates you. Observe what the younger women are carrying. Trust me, they notice.
    At an HR conference, I carried my new handbag. At least three younger HR people approached me during the meetings to say, "Oh, you have a Brighton." They thought it was pretty cool. I didn't know it was cool. I just liked the bag. But, the Brighton bag made me cool by association - and approachable. Something in common?
  • Stay current on new communication tools and technology advances. Technology skills make you appear savvy and contemporary. Social media is here to stay. Participate. We learned from a tweet on Twitter that one of our employees is celebrating her eighth anniversary with the company today. Get comfortable sending IMs (Instant Messages), texting, and posting on Facebook. IM that youthful coworker in the next cubicle. Text your meeting leader if you'll be late.
  • Don't be a stereotype. You do not have trouble learning new technology. You aren't a slow learner who needs repeated training and coaching. You can teach an old dog new tricks at work. You embrace change and welcome the opportunity to gain new skills. Try something different? Why not?
    Change makes the world go round. If it's not broke, break it, or at least, poke at it, punch it or color it. Continuous improvement rules. Don't let your language in your workplace date you, stereotype you or make you seem irrelevant. Lead the change adoption when potential changes affect your workplace; model early adopter behavior for the youngsters.
  • Don't let your language date you. You don't remember what happened in '86. You didn't earn every gray hair you have. Remember when reminiscing is only interesting and relevant if co-workers were born before that date, or perhaps had graduated from kindergarten.
    That's the way we've always done things, as a reason to stay the same, is unattractive at any age. It's nice that you have grandchildren. But, your younger colleagues who are parents, get very tired, very quickly, of hearing that you're happy that you can enjoy your grandchildren–but then, they go home.
  • Own the success of your interpersonal relationships with different generations at work. Successful relationships are largely in your ballpark; you've had the most experience and success in creating them. Not fair, eh? Every employee should seek to respect and honor every other employee.
    Right. But, you're the mature grown up or grownupest, to coin a word. These may be your kids or the age of your kids. What did you teach them? That they are perfect, deserve praise, have an equal voice, and deserve attention and recognition.
    Your maturity does not earn you automatic respect from younger employees who relish debating ideas and think that they know a lot–not everything–but an awful lot. And, gosh, they know the most recent, cutting-edge ideas. Just because you've done it longer, know more, and have more experience, does not mean that your way is the best–or even that younger employees will acknowledge that you have an edge at all.
    Join their debate, swap ideas, and acknowledge that you can learn, too, from the younger generations at work. This is how you will earn their respect and generate cooperative, supportive interpersonal relationships.
  • Keep abreast of your field. Read, attend conferences, converse regularly with thought leaders and colleagues. Be the first to introduce a new work process or a forward-thinking idea. Don't be like the person who interviewed for an HR Director position who brought a portfolio of his work to the interview.
    Old work. Work that looked 20 years old–you know that yellow color paper used to get when it aged? Old ideas, too. A performance appraisal form with a checklist to grade each worker characteristic, on a scale of 1 to 5, using such words as organized, reliable, and energetic.
  • Hold on to the job you have. These tips are relevant for employees at any age, but they are especially important for older workers. You don't want to hit the pavement job searching when you are over 40 (the new old) - unless you choose to pursue a new opportunity. As an experienced, older employee, you are in the best possible position to put these ideas and strategies to work for you as you strive to retain the job you have.
    You have experience, deep knowledge, and maturity that you can capitalize on to benefit your employer. You are accountable, responsible and savvy in ways that younger workers have yet to attain. Take advantage of your strengths and make sure that they are on display for your employer to notice–every day.

    More About Maintaining Relevance at Work

    • Find and transition to a new career field. Some of the saddest stories I read are from out-of-work administrative assistants and secretaries. That world is over. Those older, usually male bosses have retired or are retiring. Younger managers cannot imagine writing something out and then passing it to an office worker to type and format. People who worked for years in valued positions find their skills and job duties obsolete.
      Take a look at your skills and resume. Are your skills and career choice still relevant? You may decide that a transition to a new field of work is in order. A career change could be your ticket to a long, happy work life.
      People who have transitioned from another career into Human Resources, for example, have shared their stories. Interest piqued? Embark upon your own career exploration–at any age.