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What It Takes to Make Yourself 'Forever Employable'

The hard work, time and risks involved, plus the potential payoffs

By Richard Eisenberg

Jeff Gothelf, a Barcelona-based (by way of New Jersey), 47-year-old business consultant, author and public speaker, believes we can make ourselves "forever employable" if we follow his advice. He's written how to do it in "Forever Employable," his new book. Frankly, I was skeptical about the title.

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Forever? Really? Even for people 50+ who routinely encounter — or suspect — age discrimination when looking for work or trying to hang onto their jobs?

Even in a pandemic? A recent report from The New School's Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis' Retirement Equity Lab found that unemployment rates for workers 55 and older have exceeded ones for mid-career workers throughout the pandemic. There hasn't been an unemployment gap that long since 1973, says the report's author, Teresa Ghilarducci, director of that lab and a 2016 Next Avenue Influencer in Aging.

Jeff Gothelf's Path to Becoming 'Forever Employable'

To hear Gothelf's views about all this, I rang him up. He clearly seems successful making himself consistently employable, having morphed from a software designer to an authority on what's known as Lean UX (the design thinking approach to make web offerings eminently usable) to a sought-after speaker and award-winning author.

"Is it really possible? Absolutely. I'm living proof and the examples in the book and in my blog are, too."

The way to make yourself forever employable, he says, is to always have some expertise that others will pay for. At first, you need to work tirelessly to let people know that you're an authority who can help them. Over time, Gothelf maintains, customers and clients will come find you.

Here are highlights from our conversation and his tips to potentially help make yourself forever employable:

Next Avenue: You call the book 'Forever Employable.' Is that really possible?

Jeff Gothelf: It means to me creating a situation around yourself where you are continuously attracting opportunities to you rather than you having to go out and seek opportunities proactively.

Traditional job hunting and careers is a push model: I push myself into the market. I want to create a hundred and eighty degree turn where I pull opportunities toward me.

Is it really possible? Absolutely. I'm living proof and the examples in the book and in my blog are, too. So, yes.

Forever Employable In Your Fifties and Beyond

What makes you feel sure it's possible for people to remain forever employable in their fifties and beyond?

Folks in their fifties and sixties have a tremendous amount of experience to share if they're willing to do the work. You should never run out of material to share.

And is this true for all types of fields and workers? Or are you only talking about certain types?

The target reader of my book is a mid-career knowledge worker. But I believe it's something a plumber could apply or a carpenter or a mechanic or a nursery-school teacher. There's absolutely no reason why this isn't applicable to pretty much every profession because the web has provided a distribution channel to share your expertise and for others to seek and consume your expertise.

Go on YouTube and search and you'll see millions of plumbing videos. There's no reason why an entrepreneurially minded plumber with twenty-five or thirty years of experience and a ten-dollar tripod [to film videos] can't become the next YouTube sensation.

From 'Future Screwed' to 'Future Proof'

How have you done it? Your original dream was to be a professional musician — a rock star. And then you became a UX expert. But at age thirty-five, you write, your career wasn't 'future proof' it was 'future screwed.'

I imagined I would be a rock star; I gave it a real shot. I was in a touring band. That was great, but we were broke.

In 1999, I met my now wife — then girlfriend — and I wanted to take her out on a date, but I had no money. So, I got a real job. If you could spell 'HTM' you could get a job on the web and I had a predilection for computers. I became a web designer, making twenty-eight thousand dollars; that was the most money I ever made in my life to that point. And then the dot com bubble popped, and I found myself bouncing around from job to job. It taught me a sense of humility very quickly.

Jeff Gothelf
Jeff Gothelf  |  Credit: John Maeda

Over the course of a decade of bouncing around New York City, I was in middle management design at a high-growth startup. I knew the salary I wanted to command increasingly would be difficult… The thing that terrified me was that my core skill set in digital design was atrophying. I was hiring younger, smarter, faster designers to work on my team. I wasn't able to keep up.

I realized I wasn't going to fight that fight anymore. I would create situations where people would come to me and that would create opportunities. I decided I would build a platform of expertise and experience, plus content plus audience.

I knew a lot about digital design and agile software development. I decided to plant my flag with a concept called Lean UX. Then I started sharing our experiences of how we solved problems, by tweeting and blogging, and LinkedIn and talks at conferences and video interviews and YouTube and Facebook and a small email newsletter.

Meantime, I'm working full-time and commuting three hours round trip; all of this is happening in the cracks…The hardest part in all of this is scraping together time to get started. It's super difficult to do so when you're employed full-time.

The Opportunities to Being 'Forever Employable' As You Age

I think a lot of people in their fifties and sixties might think they're not 'forever employable' because employers won't hire them due to their age. What do you say?

I believe everybody's got a story to tell and the story each person has is unique…If you can make it clear to your industry colleagues and the domain in which you work what is the problem you can help people solve, you will inevitably attract opportunities to speak about it and write about it and teach it and share it.

Does it become more difficult for people in their fifties and sixties? Absolutely.

My guess is that as you get older, especially into your sixties, the kinds of opportunities this will attract for you will tend towards freelance and self-employed opportunities, more than full-time employment, which I guess is also a better model for a lot of folks at that stage of life. You can set your own hours and boundaries…I don't think that's a bad thing.

What are the first things people over 50 should do to make them "forever employable?

Start telling your story. Immediately…Run experiments and build a hypothesis inspired by the scientific method. The idea is: You have a hypothesis with a series of assumptions.

Maybe it's 'I've worked thirty-five years as a forensic accountant at a bank and I believe I can reach a community of aspiring accountants on LinkedIn with two-hundred-word blurbs about things I've learned. I'll know it's working when I increase my LinkedIn followers by five hundred by the end of the year and that each article gets shared at least ten times.' Something like that.

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You have to test that. You don't have to write fifty articles; maybe write five or ten. See what resonates and doesn't and learn from that and evolve. Maybe LinkedIn isn't the right channel. Maybe there's another forum of forensic accountants, or conferences to speak to.

'Fish Where the Fish Are'

Continuously test and learn and hone your message and then expand. Fish where the fish are…

After ten posts, spend fifty bucks and get somebody to add an infographic. Or invest in a tripod and point it at your face and talk about lessons you've learned. Then put that up on LinkedIn, on Facebook and YouTube and see how it lands.

"On a personal side, this eats up a lot of spare time and takes you away from your loved ones."

The measure of success is not: Did you write the material, but did it resonate with your audience and change their behavior? Was it read, shared and emailed?

At some point, this translates into money. The inbound opportunities start to come in. People say: 'Hey, do you want to speak at our conference?' Then you should charge for the opportunities and get paid for public speaking or teaching or guest writing.

This is also where full-time job opportunities come in. Resourceful headhunters will look for interesting people outside normal channels, so they'll Google forensic accountant and you'll show up, because your content is everywhere.

If you Google 'Lean UX,' I'm the first thing that shows up every time. I own that category.

The Long Path to Becoming 'Forever Employable'

How long does this take?

"Forever Employable" by Jeff Gothelf

For me, it was years. It took me two and a half years to get my first major conference talk and five years to publish my first book. Once the book was published, it was like a rocket ship for me.

I think you can accelerate that time significantly today. But it takes perseverance and consistency. You have to stay on message.

You talk about building a sustainable community of one hundred True Fans. Tell me about this.

One way to build a sustainable forever employable career is to get to the point where you have serious dedicated fans or followers who are willing to pay for pretty much anything you produce.

If you can get a hundred people to pay you a thousand dollars a year each, that's a good year.

The idea is to build this pyramid of content — some stuff you give away, some you charge a one-time fee like a book and then also high-quality subscription content.

Do people have to take risks to become forever employable?

Yes, they do. If you're currently employed, your company may not appreciate this, especially if you're doing well [with your side business]. You may be outshining the organization.

Inevitably, as your business starts to grow, it will take some time away from other things. If you can't meet your expectations at work, at some point you may decide to leave your job, and that has risk.

On a personal side, this eats up a lot of spare time and takes you away from your loved ones. That's too much of a sacrifice for some people.

What's your advice for someone who wants to become a consultant?

The risk here is you enter into a domain that's really broad and don't differentiate yourself enough. So, think about how you will differentiate yourself.

How the Pandemic Changes Things

How has the pandemic changed how people can make themselves more employable and bring in income?

This [forever employable strategy] is the safety net. If you have this up and running, the magnet of opportunities will come in.

People who are thriving in this pandemic are people who built thought leadership platforms and personal brands and are recognized experts.

What do you say to older workers who've lost their jobs and want to work?

Share your story: 'I'm fifty-eight years old and have been working for thirty-five years and I just got laid off. Here's what I'm good at.' The more human and authentic and humble you can be in sharing what it is you know, the more you connect and resonate with an audience.

At the end of the day, this is a terrific time to use that time to be proactive.

You've got that experience. Tell it.

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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