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Antidote to Workplace Ageism: Subject Matter Expertise

Advice from an Influencer in Aging who's an expert on relaunching careers


Are you returning to the workforce after years away or making a mid- to late-career transition? Then I’m guessing ageism is a big concern. Of all the tools available to beat ageism, there is none more powerful than subject matter expertise. I consider it the antidote to ageism. When you’re a subject matter expert, your expertise is the focus, not your age.

So, how do you get up to speed and show your expertise? That involves the following steps:

  • Identify the top experts in your field and read their books, articles, blogs and websites
  • Identify the top publications in your field and read these highly regarded journals, newsletters, academic studies and source materials
  • Consider enrolling in Coursera, edX or similar online MOOCs, a university certificate program or courses at a community college

Who Do You Follow and Read?

A great question for old or new professional contacts is: “Which experts and publications do you follow and read?” This is a question you can ask when reconnecting with former colleagues after years of being out of touch. Asking this question is a perfect way to indicate you are in information-gathering mode, as opposed to the more opportunistic “can you help me find a job”-themed questions that can be uncomfortable and less likely to garner a response.

When you show up at a professional event where there’s an opportunity to connect one-on-one, now you’ll have something to offer besides small talk.

Once you’ve wrapped your brain around the latest learning, now what?

What Did You Find Interesting?

As you read these books, journals and the like, develop an opinion on, or a response to, them. What did you find interesting, controversial or worthy of discussing? The insights you find notable, others will too. Share them through social media and when networking.

Practice articulating references to these experts, publications and courses, as well as your perspective on them. Practice out loud, not just in your head.

When you show up at a professional event where there’s an opportunity to connect one-on-one with people in your field, now you’ll have something to offer besides awkward small talk. As a subject matter expert, the focus will be on the depth and breadth of your knowledge, rather than your age.

Opening Line for Your Subject Matter Expertise

If you need an opening line, tap into your newfound expertise: “Did you read the article by [expert X] in [journal Y]? I thought it was really controversial/great/weak/interesting.” Or: “Have you read expert X’s latest book? I read her first book and am about to start her new one.”

You can ask these people which experts they read and which publications they follow as well. If they recommend an expert or publication you’re already following or reading, offer your perspective. If the person or source is new to you, ask what made that expert or publication stand out and how long ago your contact recognized the value of the expert’s or publication’s offerings.

These openers position you as a dynamic, active learner, interested in the latest thinking in your field in a deep way and willing to engage in a dialogue about it — all qualities that overshadow a focus on your age.

How to Deliver Well

One more tip: Spend a few moments thinking about how you’ll deliver this material. Direct eye contact, enthusiasm, engaging body language and high energy level (especially important if you’re older) all contribute to the way you are received. Remember, you’re not being self-promotional. You’re offering an interesting conversation on a subject of great mutual interest.

Will ageism still be a factor? Possibly. Ageism is not going away. But, subject matter expertise is the best way to beat it.

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By Carol Fishman Cohen
Carol Fishman Cohen is a 2016 Influencer in Aging and the CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch, which helps professionals get back to work after a hiatus.

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