What’s an Older Job Seeker to Do?
Alyssa Colton | April 2018
Whatever your initial reasons for obtaining a writing degree, it’s doubtful that they were primarily about landing a great job. Yes, a master’s degree is usually required to teach, but other than that, most writers who pursue degrees are doing so in order to focus on their writing, grow as writers, network, and expand their horizons. In a sense, we writers have always had to figure out a way to shoehorn ourselves into the job market, using our communication skills and our creativity to convince employers to hire us, or using our independence and tolerance for rejection as a way to create a living outside of traditional paths. Teaching at the college level is not always an option. Unfortunately, there is no easy road from a creative writing degree to career, especially now.
The road may be even tougher for job seekers over 35. Ageism in the job market is real. Karen Kelsky, PhD, an independent career advisor who specializes in academia, observes on her blog at The Professor Is In that she’s seen a growing number of women in their 40s and 50s completing their PhDs, only to be faced with ageism, debt, and family obligations. “The academic career is increasingly becoming the exclusive province of the young and strong,” she laments.1
If you’re looking for a job with a writing degree as an older candidate, it can sometimes feel overwhelming to contend with a host of prejudices and challenges. Apart from the challenges of marketing yourself with a creative writing degree, older job seekers often face restrictions on their geography and salary requirements, as many have partners and family obligations. They also have to contend with assumptions and prejudices about being out of date, lacking in skills, or being inflexible, or they are considered “overqualified.” Some may have gaps in employment from taking time off for family, to pursue their degree, or for other reasons. While the job advice that’s out there is generally applicable to anyone, there are some specific ways that the older job seeker can promote themselves effectively in order to overcome some of these preconceptions.
First, if you go into the job search believing the worst—that you can’t possibly compete with younger candidates who can Instagram in their sleep—that attitude will come through, and you might as well quit before you start. Most books and experts advise taking stock of your skills, and this is where an older worker can really shine. The trick is finding a match between your skills and the skills that employers are looking for. By researching trends, scanning job ads, and doing informational interviews with people working in the types of jobs you’d like, you’ll get a better idea of how to refine your language to position yourself.
Next, it’s a good idea to know about some of the common concerns employers may have—whether legitimate or not. One of the most common reservations is that job candidates might be considered “overqualified.” This term tends to mask other concerns, though. Hiring managers might be worried that you won’t be happy with the position and that you’re just looking at it as a “stopgap” until something better comes along. Or they might be concerned you’ll be asking for more money than they can afford, or that you’ll be uncomfortable working for a younger boss or with a team of younger people. Be mindful of these as possible blocks by tweaking your resume to address these areas, clearing it of extraneous information, de-emphasizing dates and chronologies, expressing enthusiasm, and pointing to times you’ve worked with younger teams.2
Projecting energy and enthusiasm is also really important for combatting stereotypes about older workers. One way to do this is by including in your resume or LinkedIn profile athletic activities you are involved with, and working on other ways to project a healthy image in your activities and in your personal appearance. The way you comport yourself in an interview and when networking with potential employers and colleagues is also going to be very important; don’t be arrogant or talk down, as anyone can be a potential referral. Be aware that younger managers may feel intimidated by supervising an older employee, so be mindful of how you make suggestions or ask questions in these interactions.
Overall, try to work on striking a balance between selling yourself and being humble. Megan Galbraith, who became Associate Director of the Bennington Writing Seminars at the age of 47, recommends being helpful and kind: “Being a good literary citizen is so important,” she says. “If you've had success, pull people up behind you. Authentically thank the writers and teachers who have helped or influenced you. Promote the work of your peers and their successes. Kindness matters.”
Pruning the Resume
For the older job seeker, the challenge with the resume is what to include and what to leave out. Generally, you want to keep your resume to under two pages. One expert I consulted when creating my own resume recommended leaving off any experience that’s more than 15 years old. If you want to leave in this experience, “a good compromise is to include fewer details the further you go back,” advise Robin McKay Bell and Liam Mifsud, authors of Finding Work after 40.3 Remove or de-emphasize any details that convey your age. A functional resume, rather than a chronological resume, or a hybrid one that incorporates aspects of both, emphasizes skills and should always be specifically tailored to the job you are applying for. If it’s been awhile since you’ve done your resume, be sure to check recent sources, as resume conventions have changed. For instance, the profile or summary has replaced the objective as the first section after your name and information. This section gives you the opportunity to define your skills and what you can offer to an employer.
Where the Jobs Are
Even if you don’t end up teaching, higher education might still be a place to look for work. Galbraith formerly worked in communications in higher education and says that these offices regularly hire writers and editors. “These jobs are stable, well-paying, and allow you time to write. Don't discount them.” Lisa Adams, a career coach in Saratoga Springs, New York and online at LisaAdamsCoach.com, points out that there is high demand for well-written content across many sectors.
Career coaches who work with older job seekers recommend targeting small and medium-sized companies, nonprofits, and start-ups because they’ll have leaner staff and will value the broad base of experience that an older employee brings.4
Keep in mind, too, that the most competition for jobs is in advertised ones, which is why direct applying and networking are vital strategies. For the older job seeker, it turns out, networking is where we might even have an edge. “One of the perks of being a thirty-plus-year-old grown-up is that you know a lot of people,” notes Deborah Jelin Newmyer, formerly a producer for Amblin Entertainment, and the author of Moms for Hire, a book for women returning to the workforce after staying home with their children.5
Leaning Into Your Network
Lisa Adams says that building a strategy of networking is the main way she helps older clients in career transition. “It’s really who you know and keeping that network up-to-date,” she says. She encourages her clients to create a good, professional-looking LinkedIn profile, noting that LinkedIn can also be a great tool for researching job leads. Be sure to include both social and professional contacts in your network, including, for example, parents you meet at soccer practice and candidates for local offices you support.
Networking can be broken down into three different types of activities: 1) keeping up with social and professional contacts and offering assistance when needed as well as asking for help; 2) identifying people you would like to meet and using contacts to get introductions; and 3) attending events, which can also include participating in online forums and workshops. But, they warn, don’t directly ask for a job. Directly asking about openings puts people on the defensive. Establish a rapport and exchange interests and commonalities, and if it’s right, you’ll eventually work your way to a more natural opening for further discussion that might lead to more information about a job.
Portfolios and Freelancing: Tools For a ‘Gig Economy’
One-third of all Americans are now making money from freelancing.6 For writers, freelance writing and editing is often a way to make money, either on the side or as their main source of income. Increasingly, companies rely on freelancers and independent contractors to save money on salaries, time off, and benefits. Freelancing is a good option for older job seekers as a way to network, expand skills, build their portfolio and, if you’re not scared by having your own business, to earn a living.
Freelancing is one element of what authors have called the “portfolio career” and “the gig economy.” This perspective on career encourages us to see our work lives as about more than just one job, or a sequence of jobs up a ladder. The portfolio career, as it was called in 1989 by management guru Charles Handy, or the gig economy, as it has been more recently dubbed by Diane Mulcahy, encompasses traditional paying work as well as self-employment, consulting, service, and volunteer work.7,8 In The Gig Economy, Mulcahy describes how one person took on a part-time job as a way to try out, and eventually segue, into a new career. This approach also recognizes the critical skills we might acquire through volunteer work, such as serving on a board, planning an event, fundraising, and more. Even if you’re targeting a traditional paying job, be sure to include the skills you acquired from volunteer and other unpaid work as part of your portfolio. Another advantage of cultivating a “gig”-based career is that it gives you more options; you are not so reliant on just one job for your pay and job satisfaction, which puts you in a better position should you get laid off. Taking on gigs such as part-time work and volunteer work helps you build up a network and amass skills and credibility. The downside of such work is, of course, that you’re responsible for your own taxes and benefits, and you’re constantly going to have to be marketing yourself.
For writers, a portfolio of clips is also used to showcase what we’ve done, says Adams. If you haven’t yet assembled a portfolio of your work, you might check out some of the various portfolio sites available like Clippings.me or Contently. Be sure to also list your publications in your LinkedIn profile. Similarly, Galbraith recommends having your own website and getting professional help to ensure it’s the best it can be.
Self-care is extremely important as you work through the job search. Adams finds that older job seekers are especially prone to self-defeatist thinking and burnout. “The job hunt will feel like an endless and infuriating hustle, but it's an important one. Try not to get discouraged and overwhelmed,” Galbraith advises, adding, “Practice hustle and patience.” Adams recommends carving out time and space for self-care so you can remain positive and focused. Keep to your plan and when it feels too much, take a step back. Landing a job can be like writing a book. You just keep chipping away at it, and then suddenly, it all seems to come together.”
Resources for Older Job Seekers
https://Versatilephd.com (good for MAs as well as PhDs)
Alyssa Colton earned a PhD in English with creative dissertation from the University at Albany, SUNY. In addition to publishing articles previously in the AWP Job List, she has had work published in Mothering, Glamour, JAC, Author, Literary Arts Review, and Parent.co. Her fiction has appeared in The Amaranth Review and at WomenWriters.net. She taught classes in writing and literature for 18 years and is currently a staff writer in a governmental communications office as well as a freelance writer and editor. She would like to thank Lisa Adams and Megan Galbraith for their help with this article.
- Karen Kelsky. “Ageism and the Academy: My Thoughts and a Request for Yours.” The Professor Is In. April 14, 2012. http://theprofessorisin.com/2012/04/24/ageism-and-the-academy-my-thoughts-and-a-request-for-yours
- Robin McKay Bell and Liam Mifsud, Finding Work after 40: Proven Strategies for Managers and Professionals. (London: A&C Black, 2011), 4-5.
- Bell and Mifsud, 162.
- Ibid., 9-10.
- Deborah Jelin Newmyer, Moms for Hire: 8 Steps to Kickstart Your Next Career. (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2017), 53.
- Sara Horowitz, “About Us.” Freelancers Union. Accessed Sept. 26, 2017. https://www.freelancersunion.org/about/
- Bell and Mifsud, 239.
- Mulcahy, 1.