Take control. How not to get sidelined at work as you get older

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How to protect your job and avoid being sidelined as you get older.

Employers don’t like you as you get older, right? That’s what my old work colleague Rob said after being made redundant at 45. “They just want young kids who’ll work for nothing,” he moaned.

Was he right? Maybe in some cases, up to a point, but maybe he partly brought it on himself. Maybe his attitude had something to do with it. This brings to mind Steve Jobs, who was sacked by Apple, even though he had founded the company.

More on Rob and Steve Jobs later but first, what is the ‘age’ problem and how can we deal with it? According to the American Association of Retired Persons, workers aged 55 and over were 17% more likely to lose their jobs during the Covid19 pandemic than younger colleagues.

A million more older workers would still have jobs in the US if they had only been laid off at the same rate as younger colleagues.

The figures are certainly startling and even though there may be other factors, such as older workers being less willing to take the risk of going into work during a pandemic and so effectively undermining their own careers, it still seems an unfair treatment of experienced staff.

The picture is not clear, however, with a study by the London School of Economics, finding that in the UK, young workers were twice as likely to have lost their jobs compared to older employees.

The situation changes from country to country and at different times but there is a general perception that employers prefer younger workers given the choice.

If you work for a company where this is true, it may be difficult for you but it’s still possible to swing the odds back in your favour if it comes to a dual between you and younger colleagues.

So, take stock. The first thing to do is to assess your job, the demands it makes and how well you meet those demands. It’s all too easy to assume you’re on top of things just because you’ve been around a long time. Take some time to evaluate your work performance and ask yourself if you’re contributing as much as you could, or whether you’re overestimating your importance.

It can be surprising, and you may find that you’re not on top of your work as much as you think. If not, you need to reassess and adjust accordingly. These are some suggestions to consider:

Don’t overestimate the value of your ‘workplace experience’

The chances are that if you’re in your 40s or 50s then you’ve probably been doing the same job for several years and probably very good at it. In this situation, it’s easy to get complacent and start cruising.

There’s also a danger that you start to overestimate the value of your experience which, while important, is not the only factor in being good at your job. Remember, while younger colleagues may be inexperienced, it’s a fault they’re correcting every day; every time they come to work, they gain a little more. They’re catching you up.

And, of course, most of the useful experience in a job is gained in the first few years. So, the value of two years’ experience may not be much different to that gained in 10 years.

Once a good working level is achieved, other factors to differentiate different age groups come into play, such as readiness to accept new techniques and take training courses at college, within the workplace or online. This is where young people start to get an advantage, although there is no reason why they should unless you let them.

Keep up with new developments and do it enthusiastically

It’s become a harsh fact of life. The skills many of us learned in our 20s can become obsolete overnight.

The most dramatic example I saw of that was in the TV and video industry. Old tape editing was replaced by computerised systems and a whole skill set was suddenly wiped out. It’s happened several times since in other industries and it will continue to happen.

We can lament the change, but we can’t avoid it so there’s little choice but to get on board with the new system, even if we don’t think it’s as good. I remember many tape editors only taking begrudgingly to the new systems; unsurprisingly, they didn’t remain in the industry for long afterwards and none of their sterling work on the old systems was enough to save them.

Always be prepared to learn new skills. Take whatever courses the company offers. If that’s not enough, seek out training courses online, or a night school, or wherever you can find them.

Be prepared to adopt a ‘work personality’

If you don’t feel enthusiastic about the new systems, then fake it and learn anyway, do it as if your job depended on it, because it probably does.

This may startle some people who think it smacks of being phoney but think it through. Your company just wants someone to do the job. It doesn’t care about the real you, why should it. That’s a matter for you and your family.

Instead of always seeing things from your point of view as perhaps an unappreciated employee. See it as the company sees it, which is, “just do the job, will you!”.

Make sure you look enthusiastic, make sure you’re on top of new developments, be the first to put your name forward for that new training course. Once you start learning new things, you may surprise yourself and rediscover some of your original enthusiasm. But whether real or faked, you’ve got to find it.

If you don’t do this then you will be proving your company right if it ever comes to say that older workers just don’t keep up so we’re only going to keep the younger ones. Prove them wrong before the issue even arises. Learn the new techniques. Let your boss see that you’re the one showing the younger staff how to do it, not the other way round.

Don’t let them cast you as the cliché old timer

As you get older, you’ll probably find yourself getting age related comments from younger colleagues. It’s all part off workplace banter and is generally harmless, but it can get out of hand.

In more serious cases, it can amount to bullying or harassment and you may have to take legal steps or alert human resources, but even low-level banter can become a problem if you find yourself being cast as the old timer out of touch with modern ways.

Sometimes, older workers go along with this for an easy life and even play up to it, perhaps joking how things used to be done better in their day when there wasn’t all this technology to bother with. They may even make a joke about how they struggle with newfangled ways. As they say in the army, give a man a role to play and he’ll play it. Well, if you value your job, not to mention your own self-respect, don’t play a role others thrust upon you.

It may seem harmless, but comments made in jest can become ingrained in the way people see you, making you seem behind the times even if you aren’t, making you vulnerable if cuts need to be made or ruling you out for promotions or more interesting assignments.

Remember, the boss who might one day decide your fate may not be that familiar with how well you work, they may be influenced by the general attitude towards you from your colleagues. Make sure that it’s as positive as it can be.

It’s difficult to get the balance right but you have to try; don’t be a killjoy, join in the banter, but don’t give unnecessary ammunition to younger colleagues by playing up to the image of someone who doesn’t understand social media, or didn’t know how to take a zoom call.

Instead of playing to the cliché, do the opposite. If the company is looking for someone to pilot a new system, or computer program, put yourself forward for training. Don’t dismiss it as a lot of newfangled nonsense. I’ve seen lots of people do that over the years and then they wonder why their boss starts overlooking them.

If that all seems like too much bother at your age, remember, you’re going to have to put the hours in at work regardless of what task you perform. If given the opportunity, you may as well make the most of your time to learn something new and do something more challenging.

Change is natural so learn to embrace it

Many people learn how to their jobs, become good at it and then act like that’s how it’s always going to be and always should be.

This can cause problems and it’s important to remember that the way you learned to do something when you started the job isn’t written in stone as the correct way for ever more, which brings me back to Rob, who I mentioned at the start of this article.

Rob was a very good TV news cameraman I knew, who trained in the early 1990s.

Ten years later, a new producer wanted to introduce some new techniques, involving more improvised camerawork that was less formal but more immediate and exciting. It only involved a small shift in approach after a half-day training course, but Rob thought it looked amateurish and didn’t approve. “I was taught to do it properly,” he kept insisting to anyone who would listen, and after about the tenth time of hearing, not many people were prepared to listen.

The moaning turned to obstruction as Rob did everything he could to avoid the new technique, moaning to producers who simply didn’t have time to listen if they were to meet their deadlines. Eventually, I took him aside and pointed out the obvious, that the company was within its rights to decide how its programmes should look, it was entitled to introduce this technique and it as here to stay whether he liked it or not.

I added that time did not stand still on the day he was trained in a certain way. The way he learned was different to how things were done 10 years earlier and they were now becoming different to how things were done 10 years later. It was a natural evolution and he needed to get with that or become irrelevant.

He took it on board but never put his heart into it and remained a reluctant, brooding force and reporters tried to avoid working with him. A few years later, when redundancies came, Rob was one of those who lost out. He told people that the company had got rid of him so they could hire someone younger and cheaper who’d do as they wanted. Well, hello. The least requirement of any employee is to do as the company wants. And several of the cameramen who escaped the job cuts were older than Rob and higher paid.

Rob was foolish, not office wise. He overestimated his importance and position, and much worse, he made a nuisance of himself.

The issue with Steve Jobs was in many ways the opposite but the end result was similar. Jobs was a whirlwind of energy, constantly looking for new and better ways to do things but he was also demanding, often rude and difficult to work with. This was overlooked when his projects were successful but became a liability when a few of his innovations flopped.

Tensions that had been suppressed in the successful years came to the surface and Jobs was sacked. Being the self-starting genius that he was he set up a new company and eventually was asked back to be Apple CEO. It could have gone the other way of course, with Jobs disappearing from public view as a major figure. If it had, his aggressive behaviour at work and his tendency to overestimate his importance would have been to blame.

Not everyone has the innovative brilliance of Steve Jobs. If you cause trouble in the good times, you may become a casualty during the bad times. It’s better to make sure you get along with people.

Make yourself indispensable…you have all the qualities

If you retain your enthusiasm, whether real or adopted, and embrace change you should have less to fear from age related prejudice at work and greatly reduce the odds against you losing your job if times get tough.

You may feel at a disadvantage to young workers but in many ways, you are the one in the best position. You have all the experience. If you combine that with a modern, positive attitude and embrace new methods when necessary, it’s going to be very hard for anyone to compete with you.

Every boss, whether good or bad, wants to get the most out of their staff and make their department as successful as possible.

They naturally favour employees who can help them make that happen. That being the case, older employees have a huge advantage over younger colleagues. You’ve been with the company a long time, you know how the systems work, you’ve found a dozen ways to streamline procedures to make you more efficient.

You’re awesome. If you can combine that with enthusiasm, a willingness to develop and learn new techniques, even if it means spending time on online education courses, or company internal training sessions.

That makes you more than a match for younger colleagues who may be a little quicker on their feet but lack knowledge and experience.

So, get working, get developing. Try that new online education course, many are free, learn more about your industry. Don’t wait for younger colleagues to introduce you to new developments. Make sure you’re the one telling them.

Ah bless her patronising heart…she thinks being older means being senile

Some young people automatically speak to older people in a patronising way...they mean no harm but it can be hurtful.

Useful links:

Help and support for older workers

Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson

How to be Comfortable with being Uncomfortable by Ben Aldridge

I'm Worth More by Rob Moore