18 January 2006

Getting that job at 50

When the world tells you that parents subconsciously let their children decide which cars they should buy, what hope can there possibly be for an elder person to get a new job?

When the world tells you that parents subconsciously let their children decide which cars they should buy, what hope can there possibly be for an elder person to get a new job?

You look around the room and are the oldest person there by 20 years. The MD shakes your hand and you’re certain that she and your daughter played hockey together. The head of personnel asks if you’d like some tea and you’re convinced he used to do your paper round.

All being well you’ll be working with these genial and eminently competent folk, even though you were pushing a pen when they were spitting out their dummies.

You’re not alone. There are plenty of older folk in the workplace. Not all call themselves “executives” or drive large German luxury cars. Some have simply not advanced up the corporate ladder as fast as others, some took time off to have babies, sail the world, grow organic veggies or write books.

For them, coming back into the workplace can be intimidating, especially when they’re the only one in the room who knows what HRT is and doesn’t know that Marilyn Manson is at least nominally a man.

But you know you can do the job, with your eyes closed, or at least peering over your reading glasses. The trick is to get hired and to do that you need to make a good impression at your job interview. Here are some ways to prepare for it.

The trick is not to dye the grey out of your hair, get a nose ring and say “Yo” a lot. That’ll just get you labelled as a hippy. You’re also not required to be able to discuss the merits of the new Moby album, unless you have a serious and genuine interest in whales, er, dance music.

You can of course be a 70-year-old IT specialist and as long as you know what the latest version of X software does, nobody will give two hoots about your age. Most interviewers will look for a demonstration of your ability and – importantly – energy and enthusiasm at staying on top of developments in your chosen field of expertise.

So do the homework. Hit the internet and delve into the company’s website and the website of its competitors. If you don’t know who the competitors are, look in the yellow pages.

Do a search under the company’s name and dig up some news. If you’re a little dodgy on how search engines work, ask the librarian or one of your children, or grandchildren. It’s worth quite a lot to be able to say something like, “I read on the Economist’s website this morning that your Venezualan operation will be expanding next year.”

Having done that, look objectively at yourself for things that might make you seem doddering and rickety to someone of more tender years. Several sets of glasses hanging by strings from your neck might do it to some. Others might not be phased by a walking frame. How safe you plan to play it is up to you.

Be honest though, about your health, the more so if you’ll be on the company’s medical aid. You can couch this in positive terms: “My blood pressure hasn’t been a problem since I started taking this new medication”.

Answer any direct questions directly, without being antagonistic. You may find that a young interviewer has some bias – albeit subconsciously - towards you as an older candidate. Smile and play down your response. Say, “Thanks for asking. I’m probably in better shape now than I was 30 years ago. I’ll be running my fourth Comrades marathon this year,” rather than “I’m in excellent shape apart from short-sightedness and male-pattern baldness. I’m in better nick than youngsters like you who probably smoke and who spend their weekends on Ecstasy.”

In days gone by, the ability to stay with one company for many years was looked on as something commendable. These days, around three years in the same job is considered by some companies to be optimal. Interviewers will look at older candidates’ abilities to handle change. If there’s something you’ve done recently that demonstrates this, mention it in your CV and the interview: “You’ll notice I handled the changeover of the entire fleet’s spares division from Airbus to Boeing – great challenge, I enjoyed it very much.”

Finally, never underplay the importance of your experience, but emphasise that you’re hoping to learn something as well. Don’t feel you have to pretend to like Eminem, but at least know who he is. (William Smook)


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