Welcome back to my monthly conversation on topics related to career issues for folks over 50. Today’s subject is a bit touchy, as it relates to being…a bit touchy.In terms of stereotypes, the cranky oldster is one of our culture’s default settings. In the extreme, we have older characters on television practically glowing with “Get off my grass” vibes. In the more everyday stereotype, we all seem to know an experienced worker who doesn’t take criticism well, or who is quick to complain about system changes.
If you’re over 50, you can’t afford to embody a negative stereotype. While it’s tough enough to combat false stereotypes, remember that the true ones will count against you twice as much. I call that Amy’s Axiom of Stereotypes.
Here’s an example of my stereotype axiom when applied to technology. As you probably know, our culture still paints people in their 50s and 60s as uncomfortable or even unskilled with technology. If an older candidate says, “I’ve never really learned how to use databases,” the answer compounds the original stereotype, leaving the interviewer to imagine this candidate can’t learn to use databases.To test this theory, imagine you hear two different candidates say “I’ve never really learned how to use databases.” One is 22, the other is 62. I’ll bet a dollar you’d be wondering how quickly the young candidate would catch on to the training, while you’d be simultaneously wondering if the older candidate could catch on to it.
That’s the double whammy of a stereotype that happens also to be true. Neither candidate can operate the database, but only one of them is being discounted for it. Not to digress from the original topic for today (because this example alone is enough to make anyone cranky), but I should provide some advice on the situation noted above.
First, many career counselors (including myself) counsel older workers to take software classes and note them on the resume. Although you may not need that brush-up on Excel, documenting that you’re keeping up with technology helps counter the stereotypes.
To lock in the strategy, practice rephrasing your answers. When asked “Can you use this database?” a good answer would be, “Since I saw it on the job description, I’ve already downloaded the tutorial. It’s very similar to software I’ve used so I should be fine.”
Now, returning to today’s topic: Crankiness and its impact on an older worker’s job search. There are a lot of outward manifestations of crankiness, from having a thin skin when a recruiter doesn’t return calls to being defensively “know-it-all” in interviews to snapping at people who offer advice. In all these cases and more, “cranky” could be a code word for angry, depressed, insecure, unhappy in general.
In fairness, life circumstances leave us vulnerable to a pileup of difficult emotions as we age. At midlife and older, we struggle with such things as the loss of friends and family, a decrease in physical ability, a feeling of being overwhelmed by caring for aging parents, a sense of insecurity over financial issues…have we hit yours yet?
While it’s somewhat comforting to know you’re not the only one struggling, emotional duress is still a slippery slope. Left unchecked, it can edge into anger or depression or even physical illness.
The advice I can offer isn’t new, but the context might be. While perusing the options below, ask yourself: Could you be losing opportunities by not dealing with unresolved emotions? If yes, then taking one or more of these steps might be more important than any other job search strategy you could employ right now.
Break your isolation. Commit to attending job clubs, professional associations, classes, exercise groups, etc.
Reconnect with people. Old friends and extended family members are probably more supportive than you expect, but you have to connect to them to find out.
Talk to someone. If you can’t connect with friends or family, meet with a therapist. In particular, grief and anger issues don’t seem to resolve on their own. It’s better to deal with them so you can move forward.
Distract yourself. Ruminating is unproductive, so break the chain of repetitive thinking by taking on a hobby or exercise plan.
Help others. Volunteering can give you perspective, while keeping you focused on problems you can impact positively.
If you’re still not recovering your “old self” after following these steps for a couple of months, you may need to change something up. It’s easy to lose perspective, so remember: Crankiness is not an inevitable aspect of growing older. If you don’t take control of this, you risk driving others away and making your job search more difficult than it needs to be.
Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 626 Armstrong Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55102.