Workplace Tips for When You Start a New Job in Your 50s, 60s or 70s
THE NEW KID ON THE BLOCK HAS GRAY HAIR
By Richard Fein
There you are starting your new job in your 50s, 60s, or 70s. It is important to keep in mind that a job is still a job and people are still people. You just happen to be older than you used to be (and probably older than many of your coworkers).
Part of starting any job is doing your part to make the new situation work out. Remember, you are the new kid on the block and that you will have to adjust to the new neighborhood if you want to be successful there.
Here are some tips that will help you succeed when the curtain goes up:
Be ready to act, not to take a bow: It is easy to feel that you have already proven yourself over a period of years, and you probably have. But the paycheck you get now is based on the work you do now. Furthermore, on a new job, you will be working with people who may or may not have known you way back when. They have no memory of your wonderful track record.
Don't ask about your staff or office: If you are downshifting your work responsibilities, you will probably experience a downgrading in perks as well. You may have realized that fact intellectually, but you need to prepare emotionally as well.
Interact with younger colleagues: Your boss may be the age of your adult children and his or her staff may approximate the age of your grandchildren. Everyone deserves respect, but no one is owed deference based simply on age. You will need to work in an environment where you interact as an equal (or even subordinate) to someone who is younger.
Distinguish work from family: As much as you may enjoy the company of your colleagues and as much as the workplace may "feel like family," be careful to keep in mind that work is really distinct from family. Especially when two or three generations are working together, you want to be careful not to reenact family and/or parent/child relationships.
Update yourself on the company, current events, and the local buzz: This would be good advice for anyone starting a new job. It is especially important for older workers. Fairly or not, many people will assume you are uncommitted and simply out of touch with the company's business unless you prove otherwise.
Don't replay "the good old days": It is fine to draw on your wealth of experience to act constructive questions or to suggest possible solutions. It is not to your advantage to express you ideas in terms of "How we did it in the good old days."
Understand part-time, full-time, and overtime: If you are a part-timer, don't expect to have as much weight in decision making as the full-timers. If you downshifted to have less responsibility and stress, don't expect to get the most interesting assignments. Expect some tension when other employees are working overtime, and your arrangement is that you go home at 5 p.m.
Be aware, but don't pretend: If you worked in a place where people talked frequently about the Minnesota Twins, it would make sense to become conversant with that subject. However, it would not make sense to make believe you are an ardent Twins fan. You would succeed only in making yourself look foolish and phony in the eyes of others. Similarly, you should be aware of the cultural interests of your coworkers, without making believe that you share those interests if you really don't.
Initiate learning new technology or tackling new challenges: You benefit from the challenge and the growth. Therefore you will be a more valuable (and more secure) employee. You will also be negating the stereotype that older workers are adverse to innovation, afraid of technology, and not interested in challenge. You may need to overcome your concerns about now getting it right the first time. Staying current is part of the job; walking on water is not.
Be sensitive of safety: This is especially important for older workers. There is a common perception (not completely without foundation) that you may be more of a risk for a workplace accident. Depending on your work site, check out places where you might trip, knock things over, or break something.
Let's take a look at some myths that can stand in your way.
Some Myths You Can Live Better Without
Try to avoid these mind-sets that may jeopardize your reentry into the workplace.
I am going to be better by looking younger: It is important to be well dressed, so you don't look out of date or out of touch. But youth per se is not the issue. A style that is appropriate for a 25-year-old may look ridiculous on you. Similarly, I recommend that you be well-groomed and be especially mindful of visible hair in your ears or nose. People will know approximately how old you are anyway, so it's unnecessary to go through a daily pretense.
I don't have to keep up-to-date as I'm experienced: While experience is valuable, what really counts is how you apply it to new situations. If your experience helps you exercise better judgment, that is a plus, not a trump card all by itself.
I am what I did: Even if you accept the proposition that "work defines the person," you still need to get your time frame straight. People may respect you for your past achievements, especially if they were aware of them at the time. However, what you do today is a matter for the present tense. Professionally, you are what you do.
I have worked hard for years so I am owed: If you stay with the same employer, there may be some sense of loyalty based on past service. However, you did get paid all those years. If you are with a new employer, they owe you for what you produce now and nothing more.
Let's take a look at some folks in the 70s and their life on the job.
New Jobs Can Bring a New Sense of Joy
For 50 years, Dean Korn of Carthage, Missouri, worked as a blacksmith and in construction. Pick almost any Monday at 7 a.m. and you will find Dean at the local Wal-Mart. However, Dean is a bit different from many other 86-year-olds. He is not an early shopper. Instead he is a full-time employee and will be working at Wal-Mart until 4 p.m., five days a week.
Dean started at Wal-Mart 16 years ago as a favor to a friend, Wally. "Wally had a bad knee, so I asked him how I could help out. Wally was afraid that somebody might replace him permanently if he left, so I just arranged to pitch in while Wally had his knee taken care of. Well, one day I was about to leave, and the manager asked me where I was going. 'Home,' I said. 'Well hang on there, I would like you to work here full-time,' he replied. 'What about Wally, when he comes back,' I asked. 'Don't you worry about Wally. He can have a job here as long as he wants it,' the manager said. So that's how I got started."
There is a good deal of variety in Dean's job. If one of the managers needs something assembled, Dean is the man. When items need to be transferred from one store to another, Dean loads up his trailer and drives off to Joplin or another nearby city. The job is not monotonous and is considerably easier than the construction job he had when he was younger. Dean enjoys the people who come into the store, many of whom are friends from around town. He has also made some new friends among his coworkers. The paycheck doesn't hurt either.
Dean does have some regrets. He has less time to spend on his hobby, model railroads. More profoundly, Dean told me that, "I wish that I had started at Wal-Mart 20 years earlier. There is enormous potential at Wal-Mart, and you can do almost anything that interests you. They also treat you right. I get four weeks paid vacation and holidays with pay. It took me 50 years of work before I got to Wal-Mart, and I plan to be here for years to come.
Being Needed and Involved
"Hanging around is just not comfortable. Besides, my clients need me." That's how long-time, and very successful, stockbroker Mike Chase explains why he is still working. Family precedent may also be a factor. Mike's father and his grandparents worked until they passed from this earth.
There are other factors. Mike used to enjoy golf, but it just isn't so interesting any more. "I used to enjoy the companionship, but now my friends are all gone. Playing with the younger guys isn't as meaningful, even if they are willing to pick up a game with an older guy like me." Mike doesn't have any other compelling hobbies or interests that overshadow his interest in working.
Mike could take things easier, perhaps downshift by working as a knowledgeable advisor to a younger broker. Instead, he is the first one in and the last one out of the office. "My clients have been with me for years, and that's why I need to do right by them," he explained. "My health is reasonably good, so I am able to work. Not all the people I know are so fortunate."
The brokerage industry has changed dramatically since Mike began over 50 years ago, and he has had to change with it. "Once you read The Wall Street Journal before you entered the office, and that was your main source of daily information. Today, you and everybody else have multiple sources streaming and screaming all day long. The computer, of course, wasn't a factor. Share volume of 400,000 shares per day was a lot. Today a billion shares traded is nothing to note. Products have changed, too. We didn't use to advise clients on mutual funds and derivatives, for example."
Jobs Can Be a Gift of God
"God must have created this job for me," 75-year old Jerry Sonosky exclaimed. Jerry is a customer relations representative in the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). As Jerry explains it, "PBGC is a federal agency that deals with pension security issues. People with pension problems call in from all over the country. We help by answering their questions and concerns." The calls are full of pathos and sadness. Death, loss of income, and stress about the status of a pension from a company the caller worked for many years that has now gone bankrupt. I talk to them one human being to another. Most callers anticipate they will be dealing with a machine, human or electronic. I show them I care and want to help. Oftentimes, I'm older than the caller. That establishes a special connection. Then we can get down to the substance of their concern. Many times I can explain things to them and that relieves at least part of their worries. In the more technical cases, I transfer the call to experts in field offices located throughout the country."
So why is this job like a gift from God? For one thing, Jerry enjoys talking. He practiced law for 40 years and describes himself as a communicator and problem solver, things he says he's always been. "I was a high school and college debater and went to college and law school to become a public policy lawyer so I could help people. A lawyer is someone who knows how to ask the right questions and resolve questions and conflicts. I was a staff assistant to a congressperson helping constituents with their problems. Later I was counsel to a Senate committee where I worked on drug and auto safety and environmental laws. After that I was in private law practice for 20 years." The other reason Jerry works is purely pragmatic. He has a sit down job now; a necessity since standing on his feet for prolonged periods is difficult.
Jerry has had other "postretirement" jobs. In 1997, he went to work in the U.S. Holocaust Museum bookstore. "I loved selling and customer relations. In addition, there was opportunity for growth. When I wasn't selling books, I was reading them. Then I went to work in a toy store that specialized in developmental toys. It was fun and meaningful at the same time. I got to be the grandfather figure to a lot of little kids. However, stand-up retail is rough. That's why finding PBGC with the help of County Senior Employment Resources agency was a godsend."
Why does Jerry work at all? "One reason is that I can't just sit around, although I do have hobbies. The other thing is that while I've made a lot of money, I've also spent a lot of money. So now I need the supplemental income. What would I do if let's say, I won the lottery tomorrow? I'd make certain that my wife of 47 years had nothing to worry about if something should happen to me. I would set up a fund so my four grown children and grandkids would be secure. I'd get me a new red Mustang convertible with a white ragtop to replace the 1986 model I now drive. Then, I'd go back to work at PBGC. It's a great place to work and help people at the same time."
Excerpted from The Baby Boomer’s Guide to the Workplace by Richard Fein. Copyright © 2006 by Richard Fein. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of Taylor Trade Publishing. $14.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-462-6420 or click here.