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Work & Purpose

Unemployed Over 50: Turning Adversity Into Advantage

Advice from 'Edge' author and Harvard Business School professor Laura Huang


Part of the The Coronavirus Outbreak: What You Need to Know Special Report

The tropes are ingrained in our psyche. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When one door shuts, another one opens. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. So, how are you supposed to do that if you’re over 50 and have lost your job due to the coronavirus pandemic?

To find out, I reached out to Harvard Business School professor Laura Huang, who just wrote Edge: Turning Adversity Into Advantage. Highlights from my conversation with her shortly. But first, the numbers:

The New, High Unemployment Rate for People 55+

Americans age 55 and older had an unemployment rate of 11.8% in May, up from just 2.6% in January, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For women, the situation is even worse: the current unemployment rate for women 55 and older is 13.6%.

And a third of U.S. families have lost income since the beginning of shutdown triggered by the pandemic, including all economic groups, according to a new survey by the RAND Corporation.

“When you take control of how others perceive you, you find your edge.”

Finding work when you’re over 50, as we know, can often mean running into age discrimination by employers. Some workplace analysts think we’ll see even more of that now, since some hiring managers will be fearful that bringing in an older worker could add to the COVID-19 risk for staffers.

In her book, Huang writes: “Bias does exist, and it’s incredibly frustrating. But rather than beating our heads against the wall, we can empower ourselves to do something about it. We can flip things a bit in our favor.” And, she adds, “The path forward — the path to creating an edge for oneself — is therefore about acknowledging and receiving the perceptions of others, while simultaneously empowering yourself not to embrace and adopt those views.”

Advice From Laura Huang, Author of ‘Edge’

Here’s an abbreviated version of my conversation with Laura Huang:

Kerry Hannon: Edge is an acronym you created. What do the letters stand for?

Author Laura Huang
Author Laura Huang

Laura Huang: E: Enrich — knowing how you enrich and provide value.

D: Delight. Showing something that’s surprising or counterintuitive, so you get the opportunity to show how you enrich. That is important. When you’re able to delight your counterpart, that is the equivalent of cracking that door open just a little bit.

G is for Guiding your narrative.

E: The final E is Effort and hard work. We often think this comes first. If you put in the hard work, the hard work will speak for itself. But hard work alone is not enough.

What is the key to gaining an edge in the job search for an older worker?

Everyone has unconscious biases. When you take control of how others perceive you, you find your edge.

What I’ve found in my research is that we have perceptions of people who have lost their jobs in midlife and are older workers. One example is that they are perceived to be not as technologically proficient.

That underlying perception is not about technical ability. It is about one thing and one thing only….it is about curiosity. We have this impression that older employees are not as curious [as younger ones].

How do you turn those subtle perceptions that others are making about you and flip them in your favor?

Understanding the underlying perceptions gives you the power.

Practice guiding and redirecting impressions and perceptions. In my research, I’ve told older candidates to say things in a job interview like: ‘I am really curious about your strategy and how it has evolved over time’ or ‘I am curious about your vision and how it has been impacted by…’

What I have found is that not only are they then rated higher for curiosity, but higher in terms of technological proficiency and competency and more likely to get the job.

You are guiding people to your underestimated strengths. The power is that you don’t go in and say ‘I know because I am older that you think X, Y and Z.’ What happens there is you are faced with defensiveness.

Confronting people directly about their presumed biases puts them on the defensive, which creates backlash. I’ve found that when we feel that we’re at a disadvantage, we tend to come on most strongly and aggressively.

When you anticipate and express awareness of the assumptions that others have about you, you effectively disarm them. You empower yourself by taking the bias others have of you into your own hands and reframing the narrative to your benefit. You are directing the conversation to highlight what you want to display.

Being Bold Due to Others’ Perceptions

Is there a danger in losing your edge of maturity and knowledge?

If you are bold and take risks in your interactions with others, as long as you are within boundaries and don’t cross any lines, then it could pay off in the form of heightened respect and appreciation from your audience.

Have you ever had to do that?

When I was set to teach a new MBA course, I spoke with current and former students and colleagues. I discovered that I didn’t fit some people’s perceptions of what a professor should look like — I was too young and too female. And so, I helped redirect their judgments.

I started out the class by saying, ‘I know it may look like I’m here to sell you Girl Scout cookies,’ redirecting them away from my youth and my femininity to my credentials. By anticipating their biases, I was able to guide them to the attributions that I wanted them to make.

Isn’t that a little manipulative?

When you take control, it’s the equivalent of taking over the steering wheel and constructing the sequence for them before they have a chance to do so.

Don’t let others write your narrative; write your own narrative and guide others’ view of you.

Preparing for a Job Interview

You also advise people about being too prepared for a job interview. Can you explain?

You want to be prepared, but not over-prepared. Being too prepared can immobilize you. When you don’t have heavy preparation, you open the door to delight with improvisation and spontaneity.

Focus on three talking points that are most critical. For me, I find that three is all I can cognitively handle at one time. And it gives you the freedom to modify and alter your message.

Edge book

It’s easy to get discouraged when you’re faced with job rejections. What can help someone gain an edge?

Be realistic. Jobs are harder to come by.

Start by looking inward. Own what is happening to you. Get in touch with your strengths.

This is about looking at your own circumstances and not following what others are doing. Understand where you are planted. What are the things that you are facing? It’s not blaming other people for your job loss or rejection or looking at what others are doing.

You might need to take on a couple of jobs in different areas to flip this to your advantage.

I recently advised someone who had lost a job that he admitted he didn’t particularly love and was trying to figure out what he wanted to do. He has ended up taking a couple of different jobs — working fifteen hours a week apiece and in a couple of areas, financial services and marketing.

None would have hired him full-time, but he is doing a piece of each of those and getting paid more than his salary before.

You can learn and contribute small pieces to several jobs if necessary. You can get a foothold by recognizing there is a gap or a hole or an inefficiency and you are able to tackle that problem for them.

How should someone narrow down where they look for work?

Seek out people, products and situations that you see as delightful and consciously try to pinpoint what makes them delightful to you. The more you do so, the more it helps you refine your own sense of delight and your own ability to delight.

When you are able to delight, that is where the real magic happens. That is how you allow them to let you in, and how you build your edge.

Kerry Hannon
By Kerry Hannon
Kerry Hannon is the author of Great Pajama Jobs: Your Complete Guide to Working From Home. She has covered personal finance, retirement and careers for The New York Times, Forbes, Money, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today, among others. She is the author of more than a dozen books including Never Too Old to Get Rich: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Starting a Business Mid-Life, Money Confidence: Really Smart Financial Moves for Newly Single Women and What's Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond. Her website is kerryhannon.com. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.

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