Baby Boomers Workin’ a College Town

“Baby Boomers Workin’ a College Town” was inspired by Hank Amundsen‘s comment on my post, Connecting People and Opportunity.

He wanted ideas on how older people (like me) could compete in the labor markets of college towns, where the competition for jobs can be quite youthful and fierce. I lived in San Rafael, CA, from 2003-2009. It is a college town (Dominican University of CA) in a region of academic abundance; USF, UC Berkeley, San Francisco State and Sonoma State are all within 30-40 minutes. I moved to the area when poor timing (slow execution, probably) led to the demise of my RPO startup. Since I was living like an expatriate – renting a room, away from my family – I decided to attend Dominican and finish my business degree. I chose to go through a traditional MBA program, rather than an executive program, which meant that many of my peers were in their early twenties. I was the oldest student in the program. This experience transformed how I see the talent landscape. It transformed me.

So, fellow boomers, this is what I learned. It may be tough to take, but I share because if you are looking for a job, be prepared to interview with and work for people who are young enough to be your kids. If your mindset sees them that way, you will likely come up short in your job search. And even if you get a job, this mindset will not help you gain satisfaction from work. I had a dear friend who was unemployed for over a year. She was hired by a non-profit in the green industry, but was hampered by this mindset. She couldn’t let go of the fact that her boss was her daughter’s age. It bothered her sense of order in the universe.

The first thing anyone over 40 needs to be able to do, if we want to compete successfully in the labor market, is let go of the idea that we are entitled to anything because of our wisdom and experience. We have to earn their respect. It is not a given. But, the truth is that these younger leaders “get” that they don’t know everything. They want our wisdom and experience. They just don’t want it delivered with heavy doses of condescension and disrespect.

It is really hard to make this transition. This is what helped me to do it.

First, I asked my kids for their advice. They gave me some really great insights. It changed how I related to them. If you don’t have kids, reach out to nieces, nephews, or your friends’ kids. Things you might ask about: cell phone text protocol, using twitter, using Facebook, when to use email vs. when to text, and any way of communication that you may think to be weird, fashionable, or pointless. What you will learn is that it is probably is a very efficient way to communicate certain information. Let go of preconceived judgements, and learn a different way to see your world.

Second, I worked on projects with much younger people. These were team projects for school, but other types of projects could be volunteer based, like Habitat for Humanity. This put me in a peer position. We had to work together to accomplish our goal. Working as peers enabled me to see with fresh eyes and realize how fortunate I was to work with such smart, capable people. We ate together. I learned about their world and they learned about mine. We became friends as well as colleagues. I didn’t realize how much I had changed until I was visiting my brother-in-law at Notre Dame University. He was hosting a brunch for some friends who brought their daughter who was in pre-med at a prestigious university. Jane* and I struck up a conversation which became quite lively, about school, travel, all kinds of things. I wasn’t talking to a pre-med student; I was talking to Jane. Later, her mom said to me, “you really know how to connect with her!” I wasn’t doing anything special. I just found Jane to be interesting and fun to talk with.

So called “young” people are pretty darned smart. They know tons of things and are great at ferreting out information. They can teach us. They want to share what they know. They want us to share what we know. This is wonderful.

The best thing a boomer can do to be competitive in this market is to make friends with the notion that we can collaborate, rather than compete, across generations. This mindset, combined with our knowledge and experience, will help us demonstrate our value and attract opportunities. When we see younger job seekers as potential friends and networking partners, we expand opportunities for everyone. There is nothing quite like the feeling one gets when hearing that a young friend refers to them as really smart, really cool and really valuable. Even better is being able to refer a great recent grad to a career opportunity. In fact, the 12% unemployment rate for those in their 20s and the 53% unemployment rate for recent grads, should tell you that the need for a better mindset in the job search is not limited by age.

To sum this up, the best way for Baby Boomers (like me) to find jobs in a college town is to make friends with students, learn from them, and leverage our experience and wisdom to work with, not against, them. When you go into the the interview, the hiring manager is thinking, what would this person be like to work with. Continue the best tested job search strategies (i.e., networking, informational interviews, and consider building up your social profile/s), but with this new mindset. It may be counter intuitive, but in my experience, it works.

Pat Sharp Pat Sharp, The Talent Architect blends strategy, technology tools, and assessment tools with marketing magic to create unique talent solutions. Past and current clients include: Motorola, Deloitte, TiVo, and Cloudscaling. Visit The Talent Architect. Photo Credit New Yorker / Work Coach Cafe.

*named changed for sake of privacy

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Talent Architect Pat Sharp Pat Sharp, The Talent Architect blends strategy, technology tools, and assessment tools with marketing magic to create unique talent solutions. Past and current clients include: Motorola, Deloitte, TiVo, and Cloudscaling. Visit The Talent Architect or drop her a line at pat@thetalentarchitect.com.
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