When I first started out in the tech industry, I didn’t pay much attention to the persistent whispers about people reaching a certain age and being shown the door. Back in the 90’s, when I was in my mid 20’s and read my first Slashdot thread about people in their mid 40’s being eased out of the industry I rationalized it by thinking “well everything is so new” and “those people losing their jobs probably just didn’t keep their skills up to date”.
When you are in first stage of your tech career, career protection seems simple. Stay hungry. Keep learning. Always keep within shouting distance of the cutting edge. This wasn’t going to be a challenge for Generation-X techies who grew up with Apple II’s, Commodore 64s, Sinclair Spectrums and TRS 80’s and who were of the first generation where computer science was taught at primary and secondary school. Computers were the way of the future and if you were generation-X, you were born at the right time to ride that wave all the way to retirement.
Now that a couple of decades have passed and many of us have gone from fresh faced newbies to grizzled veterans, we naturally start to worry if we to are reaching our used by date in an industry that seems to prize it’s youthful appearance. We fear becoming obsolete and that the reason that people get pushed out of the industry once they reach a certain age isn’t because they are no longer knowledgeable or good at their job, but that they have simply reached an expiry date.
Well channeled energy can be more effective than lots of energy
Staying employable as your career matures is all about leveraging your experience in the right way. The thing that an older worker has over a younger worker is experience. It’s not necessarily about knowing more, but having a better idea about how to do more.
Younger workers have more energy, but valuable older workers know how to channel their energy better. The key to remaining valuable is to be constantly improving how you work so that you can be more effective than you were when you were younger.
Never rest on your laurels
Don’t be the person that coasts on their past achievements. Stay hungry. Be as aggressive about the next 5 years of your career at 40 as you were at 25. Unless they are substantive, no one will care about your past achievements. That experience doesn’t mean anything if you don’t find ways to make it useful to your organization or your career. Your colleagues and management care about what you can do today, not what you did 5 years ago.
Be flexible and continue to embrace new fads
After you’ve seen enough new technologies come through the door, you’re likely to get a little cynical about how effective the new hot thing might be. If you’ve been around long enough, you known that sometimes technically deficient technologies triumph over technically superior technologies. Just think BetaMax versus VCR.
This means that while you might be inclined to stick with older technologies because they are mature and “just work”, you’ll need to stay up-to-speed with the new stuff as well. A person that understands the older technologies and the newer technologies is going to be more valuable to an organization than a person that just understands the older technologies or just understands the newer technologies.
Be cognizant of what you cost
Older workers are generally more expensive than younger workers. That’s why they tend to be the first let go when layoffs need to happen. It’s an easy cost saving for the organization. The key to remaining employable when you are more expensive is to be more valuable to your organization so that replacing you costs more than keeping you. If you cost twice as much to the organization as a new hire would, you need to be more than twice as effective. If you’re more expensive, you need to be able to do valuable things that others can’t do.
Patience and persistence is a virtue
A more experienced employee can play to their strengths because they should have had time to figure out what they were. You should be a far more effective learner today than you were when you got started. You should have developed a toolkit of techniques to get yourself rapidly up-to-speed on new information.
For example, I’m a far better learner and a far better student than I was as an undergraduate and my marks in the coursework component of the doctoral program I’m enrolled in reflect that. I’m much better at paying attention to detail and take a much more robust approach to my work.
An older worker has the benefit of maturity only if they’ve keep working on their craft. If you’re taking the same approach to work at 45 that you did at 25, but cost three times more, then you’re less valuable than someone who has spent that 20 years becoming far more effective and knowledgeable about the way that they work.
Be a Jedi Master, not a Jedi
Work on your mentoring skills. Pass on what you’ve learned to the members of your team to give them a leg up on developing their own career. Someone who makes the people around them more effective is far more valuable to an organization that someone who doesn’t have anything to offer the people they work with. Be the person that others come to as a sounding board rather than the grumpy old person in the corner that others don’t know how to interact with.
Maintain your lead.
There are advantages to being an older worker. If you’ve kept learning throughout your career, you’ll simply know more through the passage of time than someone who has just started. The key is to realize that you can’t stop learning. If you’re always learning, you’ll be able to maintain some sort of lead over those that are new to the industry. Figure out how to keep growing, how to keep learning and how to keep maturing and it won’t matter if you’re 45 or 65, because you’ll be far more valuable than you were when you were 25.