For the last seven years, my friend Sherry Frear, 57, has been searching on and off for a new job. The Arlington, VA-based landscape architecture and historic preservation professional recently received two job offers for federal government positions, both at a higher salary and skill level than her previous position, and she attributes her success to two factors.
She only applied for positions that allowed her to leverage her expertise and years of experience. She also made an effort to stay current on the software typically used by professionals in her field, such as Autocad, SketchUp, and Autodesk Revit. “It’s important to target organizations that are in need of what you have to offer while also showing you’re up-to-date on your skills,” says Frear, who started her new role as Chief of the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program in April.
Although age discrimination in hiring is illegal under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), that doesn’t mean it isn’t prevalent. Research shows that it’s often harder for older workers to secure new jobs. One 2020 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that workers over age 40 are only about half as likely to get a job offer as younger workers if employers know their age.
But as Frear’s experience suggests, it is possible to land an exciting new job in your 50s or later. Career experts agree that subject matter expertise can be an antidote to ageism as long as you demonstrate your ability to stay current in your field and your ability to use the latest technology to perform your role.
Here are eight tips you can use to job search successfully after the age of 50.
1. Update Your Skills
A common mistake job seekers over the age of 50 make is to read the job description and assume they wouldn’t be a good fit because the role includes using software they’ve never used. “Don’t take yourself out of the running before you understand what the job’s all about,” says Addie Swartz, CEO of ReacHIRE, a program in Concord, MA, that partners with large companies to help women gain skills, training, and mentorship when they return to work after staying home to care for a family member.
Maybe you aren’t familiar with the specific software listed in the ad but you have all the other required skills needed to qualify for the job. Instead of passing up the opportunity, teach yourself how to use the software with a YouTube tutorial or an online course. Anyone can use online classes to get certified in some of the most in-demand software programs, including Amazon Web Services (AWS), Systems Applications and Products (SAP), Hootsuite, and Salesforce, Swartz says.
“Put that [certification] on your resume and no one will pay attention to the dates you graduated from college or graduate school,” she says. In other words, if you can show an employer that you have the necessary qualifications and you are willing to learn new skills, that will help drown out any perception, fair or not, that you’re “too old” for the job.
2. Optimize Your Resume
If it’s been awhile since you last looked for a job and updated your resume, you might want to rethink how you present your experience to ensure your application is competitive.
Most resumes are no longer read by people first. Instead, employers often use an applicant tracking system (ATS) to organize information about candidates and identify which resumes to consider. So make sure your resume follows modern best practices by, for example, reflecting the keywords used in the job description and using a design and formatting that won’t trip up the software. (To learn more about how to make sure your resume can make it through an ATS and into human hands, read our guide.)
Although age-based discrimination is illegal, it’s also still a good idea to make sure your resume doesn’t reveal your age. Older applicants often try to cram every job they’ve ever held into their resume. But you should generally only include the last 15 years of experience on your resume, unless your earlier work includes a job title or skill that is specifically relevant to the job posting, says Diane Flynn, co-founder and CEO of ReBoot Accel, a firm in Menlo Park, CA, that offers training and placement programs.
Think about your resume strategically and consider what qualities the employer is seeking and how can you use your skills and experience to demonstrate that you are the best person for that role, Flynn says. For instance, if you’re applying for a job as head of marketing but have held a variety of positions from staff writer to public relations consultant to marketing manager to development coordinator, streamline your resume to only include skills and experience that are related to marketing and that fit the job requirements.
Another telltale sign of age is using a Hotmail or AOL email account instead of a Gmail account, Swartz says. For some employers, having a Hotmail or AOL account might create a slightly negative response because these platforms are seen as outdated relics. “You want to control everything you can, and if it can be perceived in a negative way, why not get a more current email address?” says Julie Q. Brush, founding partner of Solutus Legal Search, LLC, a legal search firm in San Francisco, CA.
3. Find the Right Environment
The reality is that not every organization will be welcoming to older workers. And as a job seeker, you always want to make sure you find the right fit for you.
Think about which companies value experience and target those, Flynn says. Many people think they want to work at a big-name tech company or a well-known startup but that may not be the right environment for everyone, especially if they don’t want to report to a much younger manager, she says. If that’s the case, you might find a better fit at a college or university that values the skills more mature employees bring to the table. You might also consider startups that aren’t household names but are looking for seasoned employees who can take on multiple roles, she says.
Pay attention to companies’ track records on diversity in general and age in particular, do your research and try to reach out to current or former employees to ask about company culture, and make sure you’re applying to the organizations that treat workers of all ages the way you’d want to be treated and match any other criteria you might have.
4. Leverage Your Experience
“My view of how people should approach their job search and manage their career is to be, not just transparent, but to embrace everything about themselves,” Brush says. “Their seniority and experience will give them a competitive advantage. I like to hire people who can embrace it and articulate why that is an advantage for them.”
During an interview, talk about the depth of your knowledge and experience as well as how you can help younger employees to learn and grow, Swartz says. Outline everything you bring to the table—whether it’s managing people or budgets, being a strategic thinker, or having the ability to execute on other people’s ideas.
And don’t be shy about saying that you can help mentor individuals who are earlier in their career, Swartz says. Many companies struggle with how to train and grow their younger workforce, and one way companies can develop younger staff is by pairing them with older, more experienced employees, she says.
5. Demonstrate Your Knowledge
To show that your experience is up-to-date, make it clear that you understand the most pressing issues in your field and which experts are doing the most interesting thinking in your industry, says Carol Fishman Cohen, chair and cofounder of the Boston-based career reentry firm, iRelaunch. Cohen recommends asking other colleagues in your field which books and articles they’re reading and which podcasts they’re listening to. Having this knowledge will help position you as someone who is actively engaged in your field, she says, and it will give you relevant topics to discuss during interviews and at professional networking events.
But it’s not enough to show you’re an expert in your field. Job candidates are often expected to demonstrate their knowledge of the company and its products and services, as well as how the company is affected by industry trends and news. Don’t just say that you’ve been following the company on Twitter, show that you’re following it closely enough to have something to say about what the company is tweeting about, Cohen says, like, “I was going through your Twitter feed and I saw that report about economic predictions your chief economist wrote and this is what I think about it.”
However, keep in mind that you want to show that you’re not only excited about the topic, but are also interested in others’ opinions. So be sure to engage in a dialogue rather than deliver a speech, Cohen says.
6. Practice Answering the Hard Questions
It’s not uncommon for interviewers to make comments to older candidates about being “overqualified” or “too expensive,” Brush says. Knowing how to respond to these comments is critical because they’re often used as an excuse to screen out older job seekers, she says.
If an interviewer says that you are overqualified for a position and questions whether you would get bored with the role, one way to answer is to say, “I don’t view myself as overqualified but as someone who will bring added expertise to the company.”
You could also defy any assumptions they may be making (unfair as they might be) by proactively explaining why you’re so interested in the role. You might say, “I’m fascinated by this company because it’s on the cutting edge of innovation in terms of how you’re thinking about the B2B marketing pipeline,” or, “This role is very interesting to me because it requires a strong corporate background and it’s also highly collaborative with other functions,” or, “I’ve always wanted to have a chance to bring my expertise in engineering to a company working on food and sustainability, the intersection of two things I’m passionate about.”
If the question of compensation comes up, Brush recommends explaining to the hiring manager why salary isn’t the driving decision in your job search—if that’s the case. Focus on why the compensation being offered is enough for you or why you believe that the role aligns with your long-term goals, Brush says. You could say, “I understand why you have that concern but my priorities for my next opportunity are finding the right role, feeling inspired, and adding value to an organization that inspires me,” or, “I know what it’s like to have a job that pays a lot of money but you’re miserable doing it. I’m willing to take less money for the right role.”
7. Learn How to Use Video Meeting and Other Tools
In addition to being up to speed on the latest technology specific to your role, you will also need to master communication, project management, and productivity tools—from Slack to Trello to Toggl—to be successful and effective within many organizations today.
Some of these tools, such as Zoom, Google Meet, and other video chat platforms, have also become an essential part of the recruiting process, so if you’re not sure how to use them, take a tutorial or watch a training video, Cohen says. Demonstrating that you can use these tools as you’re interviewing eliminates any concerns a manager may have about hiring an older worker they might assume wouldn’t be willing or able to learn how to use new technology.
If a prospective employer wants to do a video interview, download the app you’ll need ahead of time and test it out with a friend to see how it works before the interview. It’s also a good idea to learn how to share your screen so you can pull up your portfolio or another document during the call to reinforce your experience and show that you know how to use the technology, Swartz says. If the hiring manager asks about your experience running a marketing campaign, you can respond with, “Do you mind if I show you the results from the last campaign I worked on?” and then share your spreadsheet during the call.
8. Don’t Limit Your Job Search
Networking is always crucial in a job search, but it may be even more so for older job seekers. Flynn estimates that 85% of the people she works with who are over 50 find a job through networking rather than by answering a job posting, because resumes from older workers don’t often end up at the top of the candidate pile.
To tap into this hidden job market, Flynn recommends crafting a 30-second pitch about the type of job you’re seeking and sharing it with friends, former coworkers you’ve kept in touch with, and other contacts you run into or feel comfortable reaching out to. For example, you could say, “I’m interested in putting my PR skills to work in the sustainability industry. Do you know of anyone I can talk with?”
When you get an introduction to someone, reach out to learn more about their company, industry, or role, Flynn says. Rather than asking for a job, focus on questions about their role, what tools they use to do their job, whether they have taken any continuing education classes to support their work, which podcasts they listen to, and who they follow on Twitter. This will not only help you to better tailor your resume and interview answers, but also help you decide what type of job and work environment you want and which companies can provide that. Plus, as you build relationships and talk to more people about what you’re looking for, you’re more likely to be on people’s minds when relevant opportunities come up.
Often the hardest part about finding a new job is getting a foot in the door, Flynn says, so it’s also important to be open to contract or freelance work, which could lead to a full-time opportunity. And even if a part-time or freelance opportunity doesn’t lead to a full-time position, it does provide much-needed skills that will make your next interview more successful, she says.
The key to finding a new job after age 50 is to focus on your expertise while also demonstrating your ability to learn new skills. “Your seniority and experience will give you a competitive advantage,” Brush says. “Own it and embrace it, and articulate why it’s an advantage for the company.”