The New Career Danger Zone
Over the last several decades, the age at which someone needs to have cemented their career has been steadily dropping. Where, in the past, it would not have been surprising to see workers in the 50′s and 60′s, now many of these people have been “aged out” of the work place. In fact, in the course of my own career, I have come to see that 40 is the new career danger zone. If you haven’t moved into management, or into your own company, the chances are very high that you will be fired or laid off in the coming 5 years. In some cases, if you can make it through this danger zone, you might continue with your current company in your current position, but for many of us, 40 is a career milestone that we will have to face head on.
I normally don’t like to use hard, age-related, milestones when discussing life and career, but my own experience has shown that many people are more than willing to use age as a deciding factor in job decisions. We all learn and grow at different rates and we all have different goals at different times, but much like the now mostly abandoned concept of “middle age,” those around us will apply certain stereotypes to us once we reach a certain age. Once we reach the age of 40, people will start to look at us differently — treat us differently. This is especially true in work environments where management can be younger than those they manage.
I have seen this in direct action over the last 20 years as my wife worked in television. The entertainment industry thrives on youth and has always been quick to abandon those “of a certain age.” My observations about television and movies are what opened my eyes to this same trend as it began to make stronger inroads into business as a whole. This century-long youth obsession has started to effect even the most staid of companies as younger people have been indoctrinated into it much more than the youth of the past. In the worst cases, younger managers can see 40 year olds as being at the end of the line in their careers, regardless of what these workers might have achieved or currently be producing.
It might seem hopeless at first glance. Obviously, we can’t change our physical age. We might get away with shaving a year off here and there, but time eventually catches up with all of us. That said, we can all seek to improve our careers by pursuing 2 avenues that can help to protect us from this youth bias by essentially making it irrelevant. You can never be sure of your job, but you can take actions that improve your position.
In my mind, today there are 2 possible paths for any worker as they age. First, you need to insure that by age 40 your position in your company or industry is strongly cemented. This typically means that you must be in management and not out on the “shop floor”, whether that be in a manufacturing company, a financial institution or on a movie set. People over 40 who are still working “in the trenches” will soon find themselves facing questions about why they are still there. Is it fair? Of course, not. Sometimes this is the most effective place for a person to be working, but those around them will come to see it as a sign of failure. They will wonder, both silently and out loud, what is holding you back. If you find yourself in that position today, you need to start thinking seriously about your career options. Regardless of your skill, you could be on the next layoff list.
Second, do everything in your power to start your own company. This might be a small consultancy like my own, a small business or even something larger, but whatever the form, you must do it. Placing yourself in the position of power is one of the few ways to insure that your career won’t be interrupted by age bias. As my wife is fond of saying, “when you work for yourself, there will never be a day when someone comes to tell you you no longer have a job.” Sure, businesses can falter and fail, but placing yourself in your own business is one way of protecting your career as you grow older.
Whether you are approaching the age of 40, are already well beyond, or are young enough to find it difficult to imagine, you need to start planning and working for the day when you face this critical career milestone. Today, the age of 40 is taking on the stigma once reserved for 65. While you aren’t expected to retire, you will be expected to have achieved some stability in your career. Otherwise, those in power may decide that you need to look elsewhere for the next step in your career.
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