Sock it away while you can
"Sock it away while you can; job risks rise with each birthday
By Kim Clark
An aching back, gray hair, and turning 40-that's about all typical baby boomers think they have in common with baseball iron man and multimillionaire Cal Ripken Jr. They're wrong. Just like Cal, who turns 40 in August, they've got to worry that management might be thinking about replacing them with someone younger, says Ron Shapiro, Ripken's agent. "From the CEO to the sales manager," he says, "they are burning out and being turned out" earlier than ever. In many ways, workers in their 40s today have it great. They are healthier, better educated, and benefiting from a stronger job market than any previous generation. The booming economy and stock market are minting about 40,000 new millionaires a month, according to the Spectrem Group. But the risks are rising along with the rewards. The spread of technology and American culture's infatuation with youth are creating a job market that increasingly rewards flexibility and speed over age and experience. And if that weren't bad enough, these career threats arise in an era when middle-aged workers will have to work longer and earn more than their parents did to retire in comfort. This job vulnerability often comes as a shock to 40-somethings who feel that they are at the top of their game. At 46, Frank N. Rodriguez Sr., a Houston machinist, thought he wouldn't have a problem finding a new job after a labor dispute threw him out of work. But even when he outscored them in tests, younger workers got the new jobs. "You can call it naive," Rodriguez says, "but I never dreamed age would be held against me." Though he's earning more than ever, at a new job at a silicon wafer plant, he's worrying more, too. "What do I think about my 50s? They're scary."
But Ripken may be a role model for mere mortals. Even though he continues to make a good living as a ballplayer, for the past several years he has been spending his off-seasons running baseball fantasy camps and investing in minor-league teams. "He's prepared for the next step," Shapiro says.
Age can hurt. Of course, the mere act of blowing out 40 candles shouldn't dim one's career prospects. Most of us aren't trying to hit 98-mph fastballs. Yet a growing number of employers believe experience is a handicap when they're trying to make or do something brand new. "It is sort of like the Army. You don't hire 40-year-olds to charge a machine gun. They're too smart to do that," explained one high-tech CEO. Seniority, which once protected job security, has become the career equivalent of a laser dot on the forehead. A study conducted by an economist at the San Francisco branch of the Federal Reserve found middle-aged men in the 1990s were five times as likely to be laid off as their fathers were in the 1970s.
And judges have become increasingly hostile to age discrimination suits. A study by Richard Posner, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, found that employers won 89 percent of all the age discrimination claims in the mid-1990s. That's as it should be, says Posner, one of the nation's most influential judges. His 1995 book Aging and Old Age argues that employers should be allowed to make employment decisions based on age because research shows that after 45 or so, most workers become less productive, he says. (Except, writes the 61-year-old, for federal judges.)
He's partly right; there is plenty of evidence that, for example, older workers learn new skills more slowly and are more reticent to adopt new technologies. But other studies find that job performance rises with experience, especially in the first five years. One of the biggest analyses to date found there is a tiny, but positive, relationship between age and work quality.
Still, stereotypes die hard. Today's career doctors recommend planning for accelerated obsolescence. David Opton, executive director of Exec-U-Net, a Norwalk, Conn., company that helps executives find jobs, tells his 40-something clients they can't afford to delay. Take the class or do the off-hours work needed to prepare for that next step now. Fight for that promotion or job. The reason: "It gets noticeably harder to place candidates over the age of 45."
The Grecian plan. If you can't outrace 'em you can try using the starlet strategy-fool 'em. When Henry Daniels got laid off from an Internet start-up late last year, he noticed that the most experience requested in the want ads was 10 years. So Daniels, who at 35 had been programming for 13 years, erased the college graduation date from his résumé. He figured out a way to honestly say he had only eight years of experience (with one particular software tool). Although employers are starting to wise up to the missing-graduation-date ruse, it is illegal for them to ask about age. Daniels's approach paid off. He landed a job in January as a senior programmer at a Phoenix computer firm. He expects to go to more extreme lengths to get his next job. "I'd cut my hair to look 10 or 15 years younger. I'd use Grecian Formula. I'd understate my experience" even more, he says. The reason: He looks around his office and wonders: "Where are the 40-year-old programmers?"
The wisest career move may be to, like Ripken, step aside into a new field altogether, says Dean K. Simonton, a psychology professor at the University of California-Davis. He's the one who figured out that people in most careers peak in their mid-40s-but not because of anything special about 40-year-olds. Instead, Simonton discovered people tend to do their best work 10 to 20 years after they begin a trade, no matter at what age they started.
That's what Arlene Vincent-Mark discovered. After 12 years working for an Atlanta sports marketing firm, she woke up one day shortly after her 40th birthday and decided not to delay her dreams any longer. She enrolled in a Ph.D. program in international relations and development. It was hard. It sometimes took her 12 hours to write papers that younger students polished off in two or three. But Vincent- Mark, who ran the marathon in the 1988 Olympics for her native Grenada, had mastered discipline and efficiency. She studies cards of French verbs on her daily runs, for example. Now 45 and preparing to graduate in December, she says she has to "work harder, but I'm feeling better and thinking clearer" than she did in her 20s.
Vincent-Mark may not get rich in her new field, but even in this earn-fast, burn-out-young economy, career coaches say that shouldn't matter. Shapiro tells his clients, rich and poor alike, to do something they love. His rich clients who don't "are miserable... You are a human being, and you need some meaning in your life," he says."
<Note from JobFairy.com: Look as young as you can, keep your skills as current as possible, remove tell-tale dates from your resume, and save as much as possible. Now that the dot-bomb fallout is almost over, you don't see quite the armies of young whippersnappers that you did in the late 90's. Still, IT being run primarily by bean-counters means they prefer cheaper labor to maturity and experience.>