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Seeking a Job after Age Sixty

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Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


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QDear Crucial Skills,

I lost my job due to a reduction in force and haven’t been able to find another job due to my age. Everyone seems eager to hire me until I show up for the interview and they discover that I am sixty-one years old.

How can I prove to potential employers that I have a lot to offer, despite my age?

Signed,
Overlooked

A Dear Overlooked,

I have a dear friend who has been going through the same ordeal. It’s not a great time for anyone to be looking for a job. And I know that the repeated feeling of disappointment that comes when one after another hope falls through can lead to awful self-doubt at a time when you need motivation to continue to represent yourself boldly.

Before I offer some unconventional advice, let me suggest that you need to know your rights. If you have been overtly discriminated against because you are over forty, there are legal avenues you can pursue. I will not comment on those but suggest you find out what is available to you.

The challenge in your situation is not just helping employers know what you have to offer, it’s ensuring you retain a firm view of the value you have to offer as well. If you start doubting yourself, you’ll be more reluctant to stay in the search as well as telegraph your lack of confidence in interviews.

First, let’s reframe the problem of a job search. The employer’s central question when searching for a new hire is, “Can I trust you to solve important problems for me?” That’s it. It’s all about trust. Since the only way an employer can truly know if they can trust you to solve their problems is to give you the job, they have to rely on proxies for trust in the hiring process.

Giving you and 1,000 candidates the actual job would be too inefficient, so they use proxies—like education, previous job titles, salary levels, and letters of recommendation. They’ll even look for gaps in employment as a way of discerning if you have some hidden issues that made others want to avoid you. As we all know, these are incredibly imperfect proxies. Resumes offer facts and figures that hiring managers hope will reveal truth—but they obscure as much as they reveal. In addition, they aren’t particularly persuasive. Reading that someone worked at Acme, Inc. as a superintendent from 1978-1987 tells me nothing about the kinds of problems I can trust you to solve.

So, if you can’t give the employer a direct experience with your ability to solve problems (i.e., by taking the job for a couple of weeks), and the facts and figures approach to building trust is ineffective and fraught with weakness, what can you do? Also, is there anything you can do to retain trust in your own ability to solve important problems so you’ll stay motivated and project confidence during the search?

Yes. In fact, I have one suggestion that I believe can help with both. It’s the advice I offered my friend and it seems to be helping—no job yet, but the market is responding much differently.

The principle is to stop giving facts and start telling stories. Give potential employers a vicarious experience with you. Throw away the resume or keep it in reserve for when the box-checkers demand that you check their boxes for them. But ensure the experience potential employers have with you engages them in interesting stories about the problems you are uniquely suited to solve.

Think about it. If you want to sell a hamburger, you don’t list its ingredients. You show a picture of it. It’s juicy. It’s got a crispy piece of lettuce on it and a dollop of the exact mustard you love. Then you show someone taking a bite of it with eyes drooping in ecstasy. Why do you do this? Because it helps people trust that this hamburger might help them feel the way they want to feel. It’s a vicarious experience—and we trust stories more than we trust facts and figures. We like direct experiences best, but stories are a strong second.

My friend (I’ll call him Greg) threw away his resume. He started over by answering the question, “What am I world class at?” He thought about his personal brand. What problems do I want people to feel I can solve for them? He is a world-class HR strategist. He has a way of elevating every conversation he is part of. He brings humor and happiness to a team. And he’s a brilliant teacher and communicator.

After clarifying the three or four problems he solves better than most anyone in the world, he designed a document that read like a “movie trailer” rather than a “resume.” He created a document that included stories told by others about him that made these points. It includes graphics of logos of companies he solved problems for—sure, as an employee—but the point is not that he worked there—it’s that he solved problems there. He added his own commentary to let them know what he liked about the experiences others told. When you finish this 1,500-word document, you desperately want to meet Greg.

Oh, and I didn’t mention, but Greg is sixty-one years old and legally blind. He worries that he gets shrugged off for one or both of these reasons. As he reframed his life story in terms of problems he is brilliant at solving, he found that his age and his disability were natural parts of the unique strengths he ended up describing. He was able to frame his visual impairment, for example, in a story about a complex negotiation and he was able to describe how listening to nuances that led to a breakthrough was a direct result of limited visual distraction.

You’ll find that when you prepare your pitch as a story (movie trailer) rather than a eulogy, you’ll rediscover your own special value. You’ll bolster your confidence that you’re representing a product that deserves good representation. You’ll stop letting yourself be a prisoner to HR boxes that make you worry your age is a deficit and make it clear to both yourself and others that this is part of the reason they can trust you to contribute.

Good luck telling your story. I hope you find the perfect place to serve and contribute.

Warmly,
Joseph

More from Joseph Grenny on Forbes: Read Joseph’s latest article, “There’s Nothing Like a Financial Crisis to Bring Out The Best In People,” to learn about the importance of vulnerability, sacrifice, and integrity during a financial crisis.

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Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500. read more

4 thoughts on “Seeking a Job after Age Sixty”

  1. As a career coach I find this story both incredibly inspiring and a bit frustrating. The frustrating part is that most job seekers do not have a robust network that allows them to bypass the screening process (what I call the “job board black hole”) and present a document such as “Greg” developed to the hiring manager. As you say, HR’s role is to screen applicants out and something so out of the ordinary most likely would be disregarded.
    I would be curious to see the document if it can be shared without divulging personal/private information. Might be helpful to all of us who are helping people find that next opportunity.

  2. Sharon,
    I also questioned when one would have the opportunity to present stories within a resume as well and concluded there were few opportunities unless the applicant was asked to elaborate on a particular skill, which is the case when applying for federal government jobs. Stories can also be told during networking opportunities, such as professional meetings and career fairs. In the latter case, the application would probably still be needed but, by that time, an impression should have been made with the corporate representative. I hope this helps.

  3. Hello, I’m having a hard time believing that “Everyone seems eager to hire me until I show up for the interview and they discover that I am sixty-one years old.” is a FACT. I’d ask Overlooked if this is a fact or a story. As an HR professional that believes in the value of experienced applicants (older), I know that it is hard when people do not have all of the facts as to why someone else was hired and how easy it may be to assign the reason to age or some other reason. In fact, it is likely that they not told the reason. Did Overlooked ask for feedback? I also think that holding onto the belief that the reason for not getting the job is age may be getting in the way in interviews. I appreciate that Joseph focused on the question asked and provided the story telling option, and would add encouragement for Overlooked to ask for feedback from HR.

    1. Hi Judy, you have a good point about whether the mindset is getting in the way. Going in to the interview with the thought that “I am the best person who can really help them out” rather than “Oh dear…now they will see that I’m 60 (or whatever age) might make a difference.

      That said, I’ve never had any client get a straight answer from HR other than “there were better qualified candidates” in very broad terms. Too many EEO landmines…

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