IT Employment

An IT life after fifty: Coping with the employment challenge

The aging worker is up against challenges that we don't consider. Not only are they competing in a market that they don't completely understand, they are often in a position that they never thought they would find themselves in.

The aging worker is up against challenges that we don't consider. Not only are they competing in a market that they don't completely understand, they are often in a position that they never thought they would find themselves in.

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I always find people fascinating. Recently, I had an opportunity to speak with an application architect who had some interesting things to share.

He looks at his experience from the perspective of "been there, done that." He started in the mainframe world, moved to minicomputers (can we all say Series/1?), and then distributed computing.

Today, he's a contractor, he is over 50, and he is, frankly, worried.

Our world today has become, in a word, limited. People like me and like my friend are increasingly feeling like our end of cycle has been called, and no one told us. We feel like dinosaurs. Are we?

I hear my friend tell me that he can make anything work, no matter what. He comes to the table with enthusiasm and with a hope that he has something to offer.

All he wants is to build a system that will work for today. Not too much, but not too little. He isn't a solution in search of a problem. He just tries to be a solution to an existing problem. He cares about meeting the business need, not just what is being asked for.

I listen to my peers here at TR and realize that we are all trying to do much the same. We are from a breed that cares about providing value for our pay. Perhaps we are outdated, but our goals are reasonable and our desire to provide business with the best that they can buy for the money is not a bad one.

He has fallen behind the times and hasn't got a clue how to get up to date or up to speed.

"I've been in a rut my employer encouraged. I was not encouraged to seek new knowledge. I was encouraged to play the 'status quo.' I was OK with doing what my employer demanded. At the same time, I saw myself retiring with that employer. I guess I was wrong."

"I'm an old guy rooted in old tech. I let myself fall into that. No one required me to know what was behind the door to tomorrow. I wish I had considered that."

A great many of us are challenged to play in a market we don't understand. In my friend's case, he honestly believed that by working hard for his employer, he would be employed forever. Thirty years later, he is forced to interview in a market that is alien to him. And he has little choice considering that the retirement that he has worked so long for is out of his reach at the moment.

This is a reality that many of us are facing. We were the whiz kids back in the day, and we have worked hard in our professional lives. For many of us, the reality of job hunting is something that other people did, but not us. We truly believed that our lives would be much like our father's -- we would stay at the same job forever and would retire with that employer. It is only now as we are reaching our forties and fifties that we are seeing that this isn't going to be the case. We are being thrust into a job seekers' market that we simply don't have the skills to cope with.

So what do we do? For those willing, there are classes and information available on the Web about effective job hunting. Unfortunately, it is nearly all focused on the twenty-something fresh out of college and that doesn't really describe us. There really is little effective information out there that addresses that challenges of the forty-something worker. And the problem goes deeper than just addressing the older worker. There are emotional challenges that the older worker, newly displaced, has to face. There is not really a lot that addresses those points.

Tell us how you cope with the current state of the world and what points we miss when it comes to addressing the challenges of today's IT professional. The feedback in this discussion will help us at TR to speak to the things that you, our readers, find relevant.

34 comments
Dave Keays
Dave Keays

Something I have had to do is get myself placed where I can demand livable money. I choose web app security. Right now I am trying to get a couple of speaking dates to establish a name. If we don't find a way to make ourselves valuable, we are more of a burden on the employer than a benefit.

MichaelPO
MichaelPO

Lets face it, there are hiring biases in all positions and age is just one. We cannot blame it on the employer that we are in a techincal field and let our skills erode over many years, because we felt secure. To be in any skilled job (therefore getting skilled job pay) you need to keep your skills current. IT cycles faster than most, is stressful, and demands long hours, so why are we still here? We know how to do it, it pays well and some people just like it. We have experience that keeps us from pushing the panic button. We have made most of the mistakes out there and can keep others from doing it. We have value to many companies. I got my current position on my 57th birthday in a great company. It is neither large or small by definition. My message is, If you are not able to learn new skills, find a company that has old systems. If you want to work in this field, it is out there, prepare yourself, do your research and go get it.

sandkeycir
sandkeycir

You are right on the money. I am 61 and was in IT from 1967 to 1995. I loved programming, and also love teaching. I switched to the Mortgage business after a layoff in '95. That was great for 12 years, but not now. I am now looking to "reinvent" myself with PC programming and Web development. I hope to program and to teach. Your comments are very inspirational. Thanks from a small town in GA.

jsargent
jsargent

I may not be 60 (remove 20 years) but when I was at university I saw people in their 60's taking hold of their lives and moving on to better things. Too many people think thay can't learn things or don't have the time or capabilities. If you don't have the money for a university degree then open the internet and learn a new skill. Even learning a useless skill will keep you moving. If you don't keep moving then you will fall into a depression and stay there. If you are in that depression you can forget about ANY job. Companies want dynamic people. Maybe you won't make the top rung again but you will be back in work.

Top.Gun
Top.Gun

I've been in IT for 32 years. Started as a tape jockey on a mainframe. Back then they called it data processing! Been through down-sizing, hostile take-overs, the introduction of the PC, and many many other changes. Currently I'm a manager with a relatively small company, which I think is the best place to be right now. All I can say is to try to keep your skill set current and always look to future needs and technologies. If your company doesn't let you, then do it on your own. I learned this the hard way when, back in the 80's, I thought PCs would never get any where. Boy was I wrong! Took a while to catch up.

uberg33k50
uberg33k50

I have read all of the comments and it seems there a couple of common things being said. 1- The problems seem to be in larger companies and 2- the skill set you train in doesn't get used by the company. I realized early on in IT that it required constant learning of new skills and updating skills. I also like working for smaller companies. The paychecks aren't usually as large but you can see that what you do makes a difference in the company. I am fortunate to have found the small company that I work for...the pay is reasonable, the benefits are great and it is a technology forward company. We provide a service so our overhead is primarily payroll...the way we get better is to do more work with the same number of people (to a point). We accomplish this through technology and automating processes. What I do is know our business and suggest and implement ways of using technology to enable our staff to do more in the same amount of time. This company promotes education -- not just job specific -- by paying for tuition and providing time if necessary. In fact they even pay bonuses for good grades. I am over 50 and I plan to be here until they carry me out feet first(LOL). The people who are running the comapny are younger but they value my contributons and they depend on me to help with the technological things they do not understand. I wish I had firm suggestions to offer you guys. I hope that you will take from this post that it is possible to find a good place to work when you are over 50.

gordor
gordor

I learned years ago that each of us has to constantly train ourselves to keep current in whatever is happening in our IT world. I have always been an early adopter of technology like making the switch from mainframe to LAN and Client server in the mid 80s. The business problems IT addresses have not really change but the toolsets we can apply have and continue to evolve. Embrace change or be run over by it. I constantly mentor kids in their 30s and 40s and even 20s that think their current skills should be enough; I tell them keep educating yourself or you will be left behind before you pass your next decade. I may be an old timer but I understand current technology better than most of today's undereducated kids and more importantly I can apply it to real life business issues.

silverweb
silverweb

I was fortunate, I got hired by a company who needed a support worker for a DOS based company. Previous to that I got many rejections, usually "Over qualified" or "under qualified" depending on the job. Silverweb

CG IT
CG IT

have your own test network and play with it. Get Trial versions of stuff and play around with it. and most of all... Read. Get text books, workbooks, manuals. Visit forum boards on products and join in on the discussion or ask questions of the problems you encountered while playing around on the test network.

Derek Schauland
Derek Schauland

I am working as an IT Manager for a small company, and typically we move what we have forward and there is no pressure (positive or negative) to learn a new skill. This in itself is scary. I know that I have forever to go before retirement and may change jobs tons between now and them, but the idea that there is no encouragement/requirement for new skills makes things look bleak. I am trying to keep up with MS on some of the latest Windows stuff and the editorial staff at TR keep my writing skills flowing for sure, but thinking about a once sought-after skill-set needed to get a job as something that is now falling behind is not a very fun thought...

cupcake
cupcake

I agree with the other posts that you have to remain vigilent with the technical skills, but they way I am approaching it (I have a 'couple' of years to go before I hit the big 5 - 0) but want to be prepared. I have always been a specialist - against the advice of early managers to be a 'generalist' and it has paid off well for me. My next step is to become something I have seen little of but research tells me should be valuable... being an 'i18n' engineer... that is being able to work and test in a foreign language. Many large companies - especially internet companies - are interested in reaching out to their foreign audiences in the native languages. I have chosen German and am back at a local community college two nights a week for this semester and next to really hone my language skills, as well as building a database with 'localized' computing and technical jargon. I figure it a year or so, I should be well on my way in my 'new' career path and offering not only a wealth of experience and technical expertise, but being able to do that in a native language. I am surrounded by young and not-so-young in both college and the work environment... and I am feeling like the best is yet to come. It has been a great ride thus far!

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

that way the skill set ismost likely static. I don't like the idea but realise that in the current state of IT this would be wise move to work on until 65.

jsargent
jsargent

Unless you work in an organization where there are more managers than workers I suspect that that's not likely to happen for most. We all get to the same age at some time so unless the birth-rate has fallen fast enough by the time I retire I don't think that will be possible for everyone.

gardoglee
gardoglee

As another has already mentioned, it is one thing to try to keep your skills current, it is another to get your employer to actually let you use those skills. As another dinosaur (COBOL, C, C++, Java, various assemblers, and 30 or so other languages over the years), I've seen a lot of programmers and analysts come and go. What we seem to have now is not that skills are not valued, but that employees are not wanted. The current model is to contract out whatever takes actual skill and knowledge, so as to make personnel cost more easily manipulable. It is expensive to fire an employee compared to dropping a contractor. And of course it is even easier to drop a contractor who works for some large contracting house far away, the further the better. The desirable skillset now is how to follow simplistic processes to fill in templates to prepare paperwork for someone else to do the part which actually requires thought, and therefore requires expensive skills. Simple operations are easy to manage. It is much easier to count the number of templates delivered than to figure out how to actually manage a whole project team to build a complex system. Companies now wnat to do the easy part on the front end with interchangeable widgets, and leave the actual design and build to the lowest bidder. Even the phase called 'design' is now nothing more than high level requirements. Having fresh technical skills will not protect your job. The category of in-house IT person now is no longer required or desired.

Tig2
Tig2

You're in my neck of the woods and I know that you are seeing the employment picture through the same set of eyes as my Application Architect friend and I. I have been seeing what you describe through the eyes of a PM for some time, through the eyes of a consultant for that same time and through the eyes of an App Arch for the past three years. It just seems like the quality that we all prided ourselves on bringing to the table is no longer important or valued. That's sad to me. Any thoughts on how to fix this? Or do you see our generation as dinos that can be excused?

vk3xci
vk3xci

At 61, I'm just starting the 3rd year of a brand new IT job. It wasn't hard, but persistence paid in the end.... Here's my story. At 40, I worked for a (then) major Australian Tech company in a calibration facility at a Defence force establishment. High pressure and killing me, literally. I quit , we bought a General Store in the "Bush" and enjoyed 15 of the best years ever! Unfortunately it didn't last forever as we had hoped, and we were both thrust back into the working worl. Fortunately, I never let go of the Tech, I'm a very keen Ham Radio bloke, and we had a Distance Education system that was very tech oriented, so I kept up. Well sorta. When the crunch came, I went back to school. OTEN is the Opeen learning and Distance Ed branch of the NSW Tech and Further Education system. I did Certificate III in IT, Software Applications. I was already a hardware Guy! Cut a long story short, it took me 2 years instead of 1 to finish, But I got a High Distinction and until graduation nobody knew I was (well!!!) over fifty, and did the whole course on a Linux box, because I could! Back in the city... well big town really, It took me 15 months and untold interviews befor I scored. In the end, I pepared a short paper on the advantages of employing mature workers, and included it with my resume, two more interviews later, here I am! Three important points Refresh your skill set, but appreciate the set you have already developed over the years Sell the advantages of employing mature people based on their broad life experience and skill sets. Don't try to compete with the youngsters, (see the point above). You've more experience than them anyway. Sell your own advantages. Finally, persist. Norm

MichaelPO
MichaelPO

I like your thinking. If you cannot fix it, feature it.

jsargent
jsargent

You comment is very wise. People get far too insecure and fail to sell or recognise the skills that they really have.

displacedbeachbum
displacedbeachbum

I have been struggling with it for a year. Left a great IT job on the coast of NC... returned to Kansas only to be told by headhunters that age really is a factor (I am 55). So I have decided to go back to school again and get another degree this time in IT and then see what happens after that! If nothing happens and the stock market recovers I will just retire to the beach buy a condo and a 42 ft sailboat!

displacedbeachbum
displacedbeachbum

Decided to return to school and to my shock I have a full ride scholarship for a BS in Information Technology! It never hurts to look into all your options! "The statistics on sanity are that one out of every four persons is suffering from some sort of mental illness. Think of your three best friends, if they are okay, then it?s you!"

tdm1torres
tdm1torres

I have been working in the IT field for over ten years and I realized early on that no one was going to keep my skill set up-to-date except me. I work full-time and will graduate with my CIS degree next year at age 47. It is challenging and interesting, but I have learned I can keep up with the whiz kids and if I work hard, "knock their socks off." I have had several classmates tell me that they enjoy having me in class because my perspective is different than theirs. I bring a real-world spin to what they're learning from the book. It's all up to you. Enjoy the ride :)

Sodbuster27
Sodbuster27

I'm one of those old time mainframe, COBOL programmers. Came out of school and worked on mini's and mainframes. Went to UNIX, C programming and databases. Moved on to 4GL's and more databases. Was a DBA for Sybase and Unify software. In the process of keeping a job, you get pigeon holed. Companies used to keep you trained because they recognized that training is a cheaper alternative to keeping good talent. Not any more. I have learned more programming languages and other skillsets, only to never have a project come up that required the skillset. Nor finding a job that would allow you to work with that skillset. I also have quite a library of books where I was prepared to move on but the company/group decided on another direction. Keeping your skillset up is fine as long as your company is moving forward. But when you are locked in, keeping that skillset up is not an option unless you want to move AND you can find a company willing to hire you (changing skillsets) vs a new kid with the skillset out of college. I have ended up working in a technical support group for a software company. Not a bad position, but definitely not one I would have chosen had things worked out differently. Sodbuster27

jsargent
jsargent

Even if an employer "pigeon holes" you, do you have to remain with those skills? I can see all this coming now. That's why I'm taking atleast one hour per night to aquire new skills at home. The web is a wealth of information. Once your company knows you have new skills, who knows maybe they will ask you to use them. The worst that can happen is that you're better prepared for the next move. I've learnt many new skills that are now useless,so ok they are useless...I'll learn other skills. It's irritating but it's a fact of life that we need to keep updating our skills (even to find that some are useless). You have a reasonable position that suits your skills but you can still keep your skills uptodate in case the situation changes.

Tig2
Tig2

And I knew that he couldn't possibly be alone in this. He's been thirty years with the same employer and now out looking for work. He is past the point where he can meaningfully go back to school- and given his existing degrees, he shouldn't have to. But the opportunity to stay relevant has not been there for him so while he knows Java et al, he hasn't had much space to use it. It is my opinion that business is missing a bet with us older workers. We came up at a time when IT wasn't even a defined discipline and created the first systems. I believe that we still have a great deal to offer. The question is whether we will get the opportunity to do so.

techlist
techlist

I was with MCI/Worldcom for 16+ years before the big crash of the company. Although I was on the cutting edge of changes and had numerous patents with them, I was out the door. I had been preparing myself for that possibility but the reality was rough. I tried a variety of ways to make ends meet as a consultant. It was unlikely that I would get hired by another corporation. I was 58 yo at the time. I did realize that I would have to re-invent myself and push my skills in another direction. I found a great niche by doing field service on PCs and networks and some programming. I don't make a salary like I used to at MCI but I am actually happier. You can re-invent yourself and it's crucial that one stay forward thinking in IT and pay attention to trends and changes. Anyone can do this with motivation. It's tough but with determination, it can be done. Today, a6 63 yo, I am still very active in IT, handling Servers, PCs, networks and VOIP - all skills that I obtined while working the corporate job.

Edmund
Edmund

I have been consulting (off and on) since 1987, and F/T at it since 2000. The market before was difficult at best, and hitting 40+, then 50... was brutal. Between the Microsoft "reinventing technology" hat trick every couple years, and the new stuff from the colleges... it's lmost overwhelming. Eg, look at Google's Android contest... the top winner is a kid (no offense!) from Texas A&M. When you get replaced... that's simple economics. But, keeping up with .Net, linux, the latest methodologies... no-one wants to pay for continuing education; they just buy a new 'widget'. You end up feeling disenfranchised; and resentful (a totally non productive attitude, btw).

Tig2
Tig2

The employment landscape has changed dramatically for many of us in the last few years. If you are currently employed, you may feel like you don't have many options. If you are a contractor or recently the victim of layoff, you are competing in a market that you may not understand. To be honest, the tools available to you are insufficient and you likely have a steep learning curve to cope with on top of it. Retirement isn't an option even though you have done your very best to save and invest in your golden years. In short, you may be feeling a tad stressed. While this article doesn't offer a quick fix, I hope that it opens a conversation. Your insights may help others in a way you never thought possible. Share your thoughts. We're all in this together.

TonytheTiger
TonytheTiger

most IT people I know 50+ got into it almost as an afterthought... they had skills they learned for other reasons that served them well when they switched to IT. These same skills, plus the ones you picked up along the way would lend themselves to many different career choices. Don't limit yourself. You're not "stuck". Personally, I'm looking forward to doing something else... something simpler and less stressful. Maybe landscaping... 567 calendar days (406 work days) to go :)

phyllis
phyllis

At 66 I'm past the forced retirement trauma (thank god) and have found a nest of supportive clients right in my township in northern Vermont. It took a while to wrap my head around believing my 30+ years-worth of skills could actually work for me in web development, a new -- and stimulating -- arena. The happy ending is I'm poor in dollars, wondering where to get the next mortgage payment, but rich in friendships and roots in a delightful, ever changing country community. And I can still live happily in the Country of the Mind.

AV .
AV .

I've worked in IT for almost 25 years at every job from help desk to system analyst to IT manager. The last 15 years I've spent working in legal technology as IT manager. This year, I will turn 55 and have thought a great deal during the past couple of years about pursuing a new career. Maybe in IT, maybe not. It is time to reinvent myself. Unfortunately, I have FUD. I decided that its best not to do anything right now, given the state of our economy. I know that regardless of my experience, age is not in my favor. Ah, well, I have lots of company. Maybe I'm not getting a job at Google anymore, but theres many smaller businesses that would love my experience and not give a darn about my age. They can't ask me on an interview anyway. My advice to people over 50 looking for a job is to forget about breaking into Corporate America and look at professional services and small business. Ageism is not as much of a factor in the smaller business (under 200 people), at least in the US. Most of us "oldies" work in small business. I'm sure there are other small businesses where us old farts migrate. :^0 There is a wealth of knowledge on the internet. Trade magazines and places like TR can keep you in the loop with the latest and greatest. If you spend at least an hour a week reading trade publications and website articles you can at least talk the talk. Most of it is free, or can be. Presentation and attitude is everything. You're not old, you're the NEW old. You know, 60 is the new 40. What is today's old anyway? I don't think its people in their 50's. Companies should consider that the workforce isn't just people under 50. There is a tremendous talent pool that is being overlooked and underestimated. AV

lastchip
lastchip

Some while back, I read some research (I think from a UK University) that said, most people can expect to have at least three distinct career changes during their working life. I myself, have had four! Sometimes, you have to look away from your comfort zone and explore other options. There's always work if your not too choosy and are prepared to adapt. The problem I've seen is someone is made redundant (quite an upheaval in itself), but then expects to walk into an equivalent job elsewhere at the same salary. Unless your extremely lucky, it ain't gonna happen!

stlevander
stlevander

I?ve been in software development for 21 years. I started in COBOL, migrated to Visual Basic, and then moved to Java. I?ve always looked for one thing I could specialize in that appeared to have long term market momentum. Even when I was a director or VP, I still delegated some technical tasks to myself to keep relevant for my team and to keep my skill set current. That strategy is really paying off for me now. Being recently laid off, I was quickly able to land a 12 month contract doing Java development work. The pay isn?t what I?m used to, but the stress level and hours are much better. I?m looking forward to a job move after I sure up my experience. I hope my experience will motivate others to keep charge of their skill sets. If you don't, no one else will.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

This is a major concern of mine as well. I'm fortunate to have an employer that requires almost constant training and that will stick with me regardless if my employer doesn't.