Outside the Box: How to thrive in your job when you’re over 50

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I can’t stand it when the Walmart greeter trope is ballyhooed as the inescapable endgame for workers over 50 …even if it’s said in jest. It’s insulting and adds to the perception that older workers are somehow doomed and devalued.

Ageism is rampant in the workplace and has been for decades, as I wrote about in this column: As Trump and Biden trade age insults, older workers suffer. That said, the premise that employers are collectively saying bye-bye boomers as a vibrant workplace cohort is, to me, delusional, even in bad economic times.

First, let’s look at some good news. Older workers are landing jobs. AARP Public Policy Institute’s most recent monthly look at the latest employment numbers for people ages 55+ laid it out.

The unemployment rate for people ages 55 and older decreased from 9.7% in June to 8.8% in July. For men in that age group it decreased from 8.9% to 8% and for women in that same cohort it also decreased, from 10.5% to 9.6%. The total labor-force participation rate declined slightly from 61.5% in June to 61.4% in July, but increased for those ages 55+, from 39% to 39.2%. The number of 55+ who were unemployed declined from 3.7 million in June to 3.3 million in July.

And get this:

In July, the average duration of unemployment was 16 weeks for those ages 55 to 64, compared with 22.2 weeks a year ago, and 18.4 weeks for those ages 65 and over, compared with 26.9 weeks in July of 2019.

Are they taking pay cuts? I wouldn’t be surprised if some are. Anecdotally, this is what I have been hearing from my readers and virtual event attendees via emails. Are these jobs typically floated initially as contract or part time without benefits? I would imagine so, and that’s the future, in my opinion, for younger and older workers alike.

I am not oblivious to the fact that the coronavirus pandemic is causing many older workers who’ve lost jobs or been offered early retirement severance packages to decide to pack it in. And I’m not suggesting that employers are sitting around and saying: “Let’s have a plan to hire and retain older workers.” It is not part of a global program. But for many it simply makes sense. Workers 50+ often have greater management, marketing, and finance experience than a typical younger worker, deeper industry knowledge, as well robust professional and client networks. They’re not as likely to jump jobs. And age diversity improves organizational performance. Studies have found that the productivity of both older and younger workers is higher in companies with mixed-age work teams.

With the right preparation and persistence, older workers are getting hired for a sweeping range of jobs from accountants to graphic designers to medical coders, remote nurses and writers.

For all my 50+ worker compatriots who have lost a job during the pandemic, or are on pins and needles that your number is up next. Kick it up a notch, have some moxie, and show employers how we thrive and have staying power in our jobs after age 50. 

For those 50+ workers who are currently on the job, but understandably anxious about the future, there are some things you can do.

Do a skill MRI 

How can you refresh or add new skills? This shows employers that you’re resilient, curious and open to learning new ways of doing things and new ideas. You already have many of the skills in your wheelhouse right now that make you a valuable employee. These include organizational skills, an ability to focus, self-discipline, communication skills (both verbal and written), time-management skills, and a self-reliant ability to work independently.

Tech skills, however, are especially important when you work remotely these days, and that might mean learning new computer programs and communication tools, such as web conferencing, video chats, and other tools. Free online tutorials are offered by app developers: Microsoft Teams, Slack, Zoom and Google, as well as Basecamp, Asana and Trello.  

LinkedIn also has free online skills training; so do the Coursera and Udemy online platforms. Consider virtual continuing education courses, a certification program, a deep-dive boot camp, workshop or seminar.

Raise your hand. 

If you’re nervous about a future layoff, don’t play it safe and avoid the limelight. Ask for new duties, or volunteer to take on a project no one else wants. Look around to see if your expertise could fill a need in another department. Don’t get stuck.

“Staying relevant and energized is the best way to make sure you continue to be employed and productive in a down economy,” said executive coach Jeff Munn. “The perspective an older worker can bring is incredibly valuable right now. But he cautioned: “I worked with an executive who would say things like, ‘We solved this problem 10 years ago.’ He had this view that he already knew the answer, and yet he was puzzled when his team didn’t think he was a good leader.”

Munn’s advice: “Be willing to listen to multiple perspectives and open to navigate in a new assignment. The most dangerous thing right now for an older worker is to be seen as ‘phoning it in.’ If you’re expensive, and you’re not really doing much, you won’t last long.”

Conversely, you could be clocking in far more hours these days because you’re worried about a layoff and don’t want your productivity to be questioned. “Out of fear, too many older workers might be overworking themselves just to keep their job when a shift toward work more aligned with their core genius, or their skills, interests, values and life experience, would serve them better,” said Maggie Mistal, a career consultant and executive coach.

Mistal’s advice: “You can ask those who know you well in different contexts, ‘What are my best skills, abilities, and talents?’ ‘What impression do I make on you? Ask yourself – ‘What do people thank me for?’ Check your performance reviews and LinkedIn recommendations too.” 

One of Mistal’s clients in the over 50 age cohort realized her core genius was in building client relationships. Her job for years had involved analysis. “She had a choice – she could work harder at coming up with new ways to analyze the data to help her company, or she could do more business development and bring in new clients for the organization,” Mistal said. “She chose the business development route, is a stellar performer, and the company benefits by getting a steady stream of client work.”

Ask to be considered for a workplace training course 

Often employers offer these to less-experienced employees, but if it’s an area you’d like to move into or enhance, speak up. It shows that you’re engaged in your work.

If you’re job hunting:

Give yourself a faith lift 

Pull out your old performance reviews. These will jog your memory of achievements and provide some talking points when a recruiter or hiring manager asks about your previous work challenges and how you resolved them.


Who do you know at a company where you are applying for a job? Employers hire the old-fashioned way. They look for people they know, or people they know know, who can vouch for you. Leave no stone unturned. Tell everyone you know that you’re on the hunt. Don’t be bashful. Ask for ideas, help, connections. Attending a virtual job fair is another fairly easy way to connect with recruiters, hiring managers and career experts.

Polish your online profiles 

An employer will do their due diligence on you. From Facebook to LinkedIn to Instagram, your online identity spotlights your professional talents and your personality. This is your billboard to potential employers, and helps them get a sense if you will “fit it.” Use a LinkedIn search to find contacts you might send a note to who work for an employer where you want to get a referral boost in the door.

Think about your skills as beyond your résumé 

If you worked pro bono as treasurer for your local parent-teacher organization, for example, you have proficiency with financial management and budgeting. If you raised children, you have an understanding of scheduling. If you cared for an aging relative, you may have been a financial manager, hiring manager, patient advocate, and project manager.


Get out of your head and into the world. Look for work that taps into your skills or even adds new ones. This pro bono work helps explain gaps in your resume and you never know who you might meet who can lead you to a new opportunity.

Be open to new prospects 

Chances are you’re not going to replicate your old job. Think creatively on ways you can apply your skills in a new approach.

When you land an interview, craft your own questions for your interviewer carefully. For a column I wrote for Next Avenue, I reached out to Harvard Business School professor Laura Huang, author of “Edge: Turning Adversity Into Advantage.”

In her book, Huang writes about a way to combat bias: “We have this impression that older employees are not as curious [as younger ones]. In my research, I’ve told older candidates to say things in a job interview like: ‘I am really curious about your strategy and how it has evolved over time’ or ‘I am curious about your vision and how it has been impacted by…’

What Huang found is that not only are they then rated higher for curiosity, but higher in terms of technological proficiency and competency and more likely to get the job.

And these weren’t door greeters.

Kerry Hannon is the author of “Never Too Old to Get Rich: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Starting a Business Mid-Life.” She has covered personal finance, retirement and careers for the New York Times, Forbes, Money, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today, among other publications. She is the author of a dozen books. Her website is kerryhannon.com. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.