Becoming someone who’s readily employable in your 50s (and beyond) calls on a skill set you can and should start working on as early as your first few jobs – even when you’re just in your teens or 20s. You can also pick up and start polishing these strengths, even if you’re in your 60s or 70s when you want to find work. Today people can expect to have as many as 11 jobs over a career lifetime. With a tip of the hat to the late Stephen Covey, you might think of the following as the “Seven Habits of Highly Employable People.”
None of the skills we’re recommending should be cultivated in place of competence in your work or loyalty to your tasks; rather, these are the extra things that will make you more hirable on top of your other abilities.
Each general point is paired with age-specific recommendations for when you’re in your 50s, plus some key moves to immediately make if your job search is in high gear or you’re suddenly out of work.
1. Cultivate Friendships, Not Just “Networks”
LIFELONG HABIT: Forget self-conscious networking. Instead, concentrate on making friends and on being a friend. Take an interest in other people, remember their stories, stay in touch, send thank-you notes and celebrate people’s successes. Be the friend you’d like to have – loyal, generous and trustworthy. Take small social risks: Invite people to join you in something, offer a ride home, learn to accept help and be generous with your time.
In your 50s: Include younger people among your friendships as well as the older and more powerful people who can help you now. Like networking, “mentoring” has become a cynical cliché, but inside the phony stuff is something valuable. Make a point of spending some time with younger colleagues and people in your area, but be careful that you listen to their concerns more than you preach to them. As your friends’ children come of age, take an interest in them, too.
Searching in high gear: If you’re still employed but actively looking, now’s the time to contact recruiters and mark what you send to HR departments as confidential. Be sure your resume is up-to-date, not just in terms of your work history and career objective, but also in its format: Is it scannable in an Applicant Tracking System (ATS)? Have you embedded the current buzzwords for the jobs you’d like to get?
Shorten the older items on your resume and delete any job duties that will make you seem too old-school. If nobody uses whizamajigs anymore, then don’t list that you’re good at them. Consider having a personal web page and develop your capsule self-description.
Urgent: Work on a simple explanation of why you’re out of work that is basically true and doesn’t reflect too badly on you, on your ex-boss or on the company. Refine and rehearse it until you can say it without getting upset. This is not the time to have axes to grind.
You may want to vent to close family and a few patient and loyal friends. Until you can get your emotions under some control, though, stay off the phone and watch what you put in the e-mail and what you say in public. When you go out socially, be careful that having a drink or two doesn’t loosen your tongue, release your anger or bring out self-pity. Be ready with small-talk topics so that you can deflect the conversation away from yourself.
You can now send out another round of resumes to say you’re available immediately or a month or two in the future. Update your LinkedIn profile.
2. Keep Up Your Looks, Your Spirit And Your Energy
LIFELONG HABIT: Stay fit – exercise enough to sleep well, have plenty of energy and stay healthy. Control your weight. If stress is a problem in your life or work, make changes. Don’t hover between a rock and a hard place; figure out a better spot and move toward it — even if it’s a lateral move. Avoid unnecessary financial stress, which usually boils down to: Live enough below your means to prevent financial problems, build up an emergency fund and set aside regular savings for future goals and needs.
In your 50s: Periodically evaluate your wardrobe and your overall style. Get rid of clothes that look dated no matter how much you liked them when they were new. Is your hair thinning, graying or receding so that it’s time to change the way it’s cut or styled? Be wary of coloring your hair very dark even if that’s your original color; all-one-tone dark hair can look fake and harsh on older faces. Instead, consider using a shade or two lighter to tone down gray without looking like you applied shoe polish to your head.
Searching in high gear: You may already be a member of a trade association or civic organization; this is the time to seek a leadership role in it – head an important committee, chair an event or take on a challenge that will give you visibility and favorable word of mouth.
Urgent: See if you can negotiate an exit package that not only provides some health coverage, severance and so on but some outplacement perks as well, such as a health or golf club membership, for instance. In your professional organization, join an existing committee – any committee – and work your tail off. It’s a good way to boost your reputation as a doer and keep up your self-respect.
3. Have Two Irons in the Fire
LIFELONG HABIT: Unless you are the owner of a new business, do not let one job take all your time and energy: You can have a major career and a minor career. At some point, they may flip. Or you may have a two-tier career: Break jobs into tasks – and turn tasks into secondary careers, possibly very part-time. For example, an interior designer with corporate clients also has a local custom-upholstery business with several part-time employees. Your two career lines may be related or completely independent. Today’s trend is toward “slasher” occupations, often in surprising juxtapositions: accountant/garden designer. Jazz drummer/journalism professor/craft beer brew consultant. Church organist/web designer/computer programmer. In big or little ways, what you observe and learn in one job may help you in the other.
In your 50s: In most families, this time of peak earnings is also a time of high expenditure for children’s college or even secondary school costs, home renovations, parental caretaking, and medical expenses. Can you wrest more income from your sideline so that you can keep up your regular retirement savings and keep down overall debt?
Whatever your interests and skills are, consider whether you can share or teach them to others as a paying sideline. The church organist may be able to add more weddings to his schedule and teach a few private pupils as well. The local history expert starts giving walking tours and entertaining illustrated lectures for a fee.
Searching in high gear: As realistically as you can, size up your prospects. Do you need to relocate? Research areas that might have better opportunities for you. Do you need to take classes toward certification in a specialty? Start now. Do you need to switch to a different career? Get serious. Figure out how you can best use the lead time to lay the groundwork for a career transition.
Urgent: Maybe you can rustle up some short-term projects while you finish a degree or hit the ground jogging in the new location by doing some temp work. But don’t be afraid to think long term. The rate of increase in labor force participation by people 65 to 69 continues to grow every year and is expected to reach as much as 36.6% by 2026.
4. Make Yourself a Pleasure to Be Around
LIFELONG HABIT: Be gracious, grateful and generous. If you have problems with depression, anger or anxiety, deal with them. Get help, including short-term therapy and/or taking necessary prescribed medication when your demons get the upper hand. Learn to shed your grudges. Remember, chronic anger and anxiety will show in your face as you age, making you easier to read and harder to like. Learn to ask people easy social questions rather than talking about yourself too much, and try to show a sense of humor about yourself. Share news but not unkind gossip. Even if no one’s looking, don’t kick the neighbor’s cat.
In your 50s: You may be facing up to the limitations of your body for the first time, but do not make it a mainstay of your conversation. No need to joke about “senior moments” when you can attribute memory lapses to “multitasking overload.” If you face a health problem, focus on recovery or management of it. In short, don’t get hung up on aging as a problem.
Searching in high gear: Convey open-minded, positive expectations of the next phase along with a readiness to move into it. Show that you’ve enjoyed your work in the past, not just the paychecks. Don’t try to hide or lie about your age – that is, don’t treat it like a dirty secret, just redefine it as if to say, “My age 55 is as full of energy and optimism as age 40, but look how much smarter and wiser I am now.”
Urgent: If you’re getting the interviews but never the job, and if you think your age is holding you back from work you are qualified for, go to a career coach for help in discarding behaviors you may not be aware of that are weighing you down. But face the fact: Prejudice and age-stereotyping exist in the world, and you cannot control everything from your side of the desk when you’re the one sitting in the guest chair.
5. Know Your Business Universe
LIFELONG HABIT: Keep up with not only the state of your company but of the industry as a whole. Read the business and trade press; follow the important blogs. Join industry forums and groups online.
In your 50s: Make note of which companies would be the best to work for, who the leaders are, and also who is likely to be one of tomorrow’s stars. Keep bookmarks or a clip file. Go out of your way to get casually acquainted with influential people in your field that you don’t already know.
Searching in high gear: Turn that casual knowledge into an action list. Contact people, suggest having lunch or coffee and out of the corner of your eye, start paying attention to what’s happening in other fields you might transition to if things come up dry in what you’ve been doing.
Urgent: Has someone relevant to your search recently appeared in the trade press? If it’s favorable, you can mention it in a cover letter or in person.
6. Keep Learning
LIFELONG HABIT: Read books, go places you’ve never been, expose yourself to different ideas and cultivate additional skills. Be curious and at least a little adventurous about what’s new.
In your 50s: Sign up for a massive open online course (MOOC), take online tutorials, add some digital skills and make use of various life hacks. Listen to TED talks, take voice or yoga classes. Get out of your comfort zone sometimes. Do things you enjoy and challenge yourself with new stuff. Mix socially with people of all ages, but especially arrange to have contact with people five to 10 years younger than you or more. Committee work or nonprofit volunteering is one good way. Among other things, this will update your conversation with current references and catchphrases.
Searching in high gear: Embrace the 21st century – use all the digital support you can get. Visit online job-search sites: Check out Indeed.com, Career Builder, ZipRecruiter.com, Glassdoor.com and Freelancer.com. Look at Idealist.org for nonprofits. Which sites fit your needs? Ask other people in your field for suggestions – especially those who’ve recently changed jobs.
Urgent: Sign up to teach a course or just a single class that will give you a good reason to visit people who might be in a position to hire you in the near future. Ask them what your students need to know. Position yourself as someone comfortable in a leadership role whether in a classroom or the workplace. Besides, who isn’t flattered by being interviewed as an industry leader or knowledgeable person?
Now that it’s no secret you’re looking, update your LinkedIn profile with whatever you’re teaching or lecturing about; pull out a couple of points to highlight. Add other recent accomplishments and adjust the setting so your update goes out to your full list of contacts – but don’t do this trick too often or you’ll become a bore.
7. Accept Feedback Without Getting Defensive
LIFELONG HABIT: If this is hard for you, get some practice by taking a few courses outside of work. Or take up a new sport; getting coaching will help you if you need to learn how to learn.
In your 50s: Abandon false pride: If you get passed over for a promotion or a job you thought you were qualified for, try to find out why so you can fix the problem. Be careful not to appear as though you have a chip on your shoulder. As long as you can keep learning and changing, you’ll never be a has-been.
Throughout the job search: Think of this period like staying in training for a sports competition or having your home on the market so you can’t permit personal “stuff” like laundry (or self-pity) to pile up or leave dirty dishes (or disgruntled attitudes) out on display.
The Bottom Line
There are reasons some people seem to float easily from job to job as though jobs come looking for them rather than the other way around. Develop and practice these “Seven Habits of Highly Employable People,” and you'll improve your chances of becoming one of them. Today, being in your 50s is certainly not too late to put new habits into practice because you may have another 10, 15 or 20 years to go in your career – and they may as well be good ones.