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Returning to Work

Q: I’m so frustrated and discouraged! I have a great work history and have stayed current with my computer skills. I am reliable and have great work habits. When my employer closed its doors, I was out of work through no fault of mine. I am well qualified for the jobs I pursue but get few interviews. When I do interview, nothing happens! Should I revise my resume so I appear younger? I’ve even considered coloring my hair and buying a “young man’s clothes” outfit. I walk into interviews, and I think the recruiter can see right through me and see nothing but an older guy. What can I do? Michael, Boston, Mass.

A: Michael, your question, or something like it, is the most frequently asked by age 50+ (and soon by 45+) job seekers. Of course, your age is an important factor. I am absolutely convinced that age discrimination is the last, and most widespread, socially acceptable form of bias in our society—and it must be challenged and overcome. Unfortunately, while society struggles with age bias and our weakened economy—you and many others need and want to work.

The solution will be legislative, economic, moral, and social—and it won’t happen soon enough for most of us. That leaves each of us with only one practical alternative. Assert yourself—your capabilities, your knowledge, your value. Turn perceptions and stereotypes about ageism on their head. Be proud of your age and the value of a lifetime of experience and learning. Stop apologizing for your age. 

Before you can change someone else’s opinion of your economic and social value, you have to change your own beliefs about growing older. Some of us have to cope with chronic illness and disabilities. But if we are willing and able to work, age should not be the obstacle it is today. You can be older and fit. You can be older and well-groomed. You can be older and computer-literate. You can be older and “with it.” 

Psychologists often pose this question: “How old would you say you were if you didn’t know how old you were?” Go ahead and take a moment to answer it.

I’ll bet you would say you’re about 35 to 45 years old. Although I feel like I’m 80 some days, I still believe I’m about 38. Until we banish age bias to the dustbin of society, try acting as if you are still 40 and proudly present your capabilities and maturity with pride. Some employers will get it, and some won’t. Find the ones that do. Look at the list of AARP’s National Employer Team and “AARP Best Employers for Workers Over 50” as well as RetirementJobs.com’s age-friendly employers via AARP.org’s job-search engine.

Q: I have been out of the workforce for some time, and I have had periods of unemployment while attending to family obligations. When I was working, I had numerous jobs. I’m just not certain of how to describe the kind of work I want or how to present my work experience in a resume. I could really use some help. —Phyllis, Seattle, Wash.

A: Phyllis, your situation is not so unusual—although you are confronting several obstacles, any one of which could cause uncertainty and hesitation. Let’s try taking them one at a time in a logical order:

Work objective. Start with a list of your strongest capabilities and talents. What do you do well and most enjoy? Identify what you can do for an employer, not what you’ve done in the past. From this list of capabilities, identify several specific jobs you would be qualified for and that are likely to be available in your community. Use your imagination, and think about what jobs could appeal to you in hospitals, schools, retailers, nonprofits, caregiving, and office administration, to name a few. List five specific jobs you are qualified to do.

Your resume. There are good “how-to” books on resume writing. Scan these as well as Web sites that offer resume writing services. These sites usually give several examples of effective formats, so model yours after one of them. Start with a specific statement of what job you would like. Follow this with a listing of your strengths and talents. If you have gaps in your work history, put a brief paragraph at the end of the resume explaining the time spent with personal obligations. Employers have become more understanding of time spent away from work to care for family members. Present only 15 years of your most relevant and meaningful work experiences. Visit the Career One Stop Center (formally called the unemployment office) in your state. They may be able to help with your resume.

Identify employers. Prepare a list of 15 to 20 employers and then each day, contact two or three. Go visit their facilities, and try to meet someone who’s involved with hiring. Stay focused on these employers until the list is exhausted, and then make up a new list.

Feeling overwhelmed and fearful? Searching for a job, particularly in a “down” economy, is unpleasant at best. Expect to feel overwhelmed and uncertain to the point of feeling frozen in place. Only you can pull yourself out of this predicament. Get help and seek the support of people you know. Explore what social services may be available in your community. Gather up your courage and resources, make a plan, and prepare for the job-search battle.   

Q: I have had several interviews, and one job in particular is very appealing. My problem is that I haven’t heard back from anybody since my interview two weeks ago. I don’t want to be a pest, but it’s horrible not getting any feedback (good or bad). I don’t know if I should risk being labeled as a pest or be persistent and contact them. What’s best? —Kathryn, Atlanta, Ga.

A: Kathryn, this is one question I can answer with some confidence. Persistence is the best route in almost all situations. I’m not suggesting you hound or stalk employers. In this difficult labor market, candidates who distinguish themselves and stand out in the eyes of the employer, even for being a bit too persistent, often have the advantage.

Regrettably, employers often have an abundance of candidates and a shortage of time. Years ago, failing to communicate with a job seeker was considered very unprofessional. Today, these standards of courtesy have eroded. Times and norms have changed. This leaves it to you, the job seeker, to maintain communication.

Never leave an interview without the name, title, address, e-mail, and phone number of the individual who’s directing the job search. Try and get a sense of the hiring time line and when you can expect a follow-up conversation. When you send your thank-you note or e-mail, mention that you will be in touch on a regular basis. Send a follow-up e-mail one week after your interview that emphasizes your interest in the job, and state “this is the job I want.” If you get no response within two days, send another e-mail and mention you will be phoning soon. If you still hear nothing, call the next day and every second or third day after that. Are you being a pest or persistent?

You can’t allow two weeks or more to pass following an interview. Be courteous and positive. Stress your high level of interest in the job and employer. Send along additional information or samples of your work. Create a reason to communicate! Job seekers are seldom hired for patience and humility. Be totally professional, but go after that job until you get it or until the employer tells you to stop contacting them.

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