After an 18-year career break spent raising her sons, Alicia Schober was ready to return to work. She recently landed a coveted “returnship” (a career re-entry program for mid-career professionals) with a mid-size California software company, an industry where the median age hovers around 28.
Schober is 51 years old, a fact she tries not to share with dozens of her colleagues — many of whom are in their 20s —at the firm, where team-building exercises include paintball and laser tag. For weeks leading up to her first day, Schober refused to let the generational divide trip her up at work.
“I warned myself not to fall into the mom trap,” she told me, noting she got the job through through Path Forward, an organization that helps restart people's careers after time spent on caregiving. That meant no dishing advice to colleagues about wearing their raincoat, skipping that upcoming blind date or stop eating that Halloween candy. Rule No. 1, she said, is not to remind your colleagues that you’re old enough to be their mother.
Another big rule for navigating the generational jungle includes avoiding any sign of tech weakness. “I don’t ask questions unless I am really stuck because I am afraid of showing my ignorance … and age,” she said.
Schober isn’t alone. For many midlife women re-entering the workforce after a career break, it’s a whole new world, where their co-workers in many cases are their kids' age. Despite valuable skills and experience they find themselves struggling to defy stereotypes about being less productive and tech-savvy than their younger counterparts.
While 50 may be the new 30 at the gym, it’s in danger of being the new 70 at many offices.
When did everyone get so much younger?
“Barely recognizable,” is how Caroline, described her new environment when she went back to work at age 52 in 2013 as an attorney at an East Coast university after a 16-year break. Caroline did not want her last name published out of fear it would jeopardize her job, along with several other women I spoke to.
“I knew people would be younger but I didn’t realize how much younger,” she added.
Welcome to the new, multigenerational workplace.
Because people are living and working longer than ever before, there are as many as five distinct generations in today’s workforce: The “Traditionals” or Silent Generation, born before 1945; Baby Boomers, born 1945 to 1964; Generation X, born 1965 to 1980; Millennials, born 1981 to 1999; and Generation Z or the iGeneration, born since 2000.
The average leadership age is also trending younger, led by Silicon Valley companies where the average age of a billion dollar unicorn founder is 31 and the average CEO clocks in at a youthful 42 years old, 10 years younger than the median age of an S&P 500 CEO.
Power in business is shifting younger, said Chip Conley, author of “Wisdom @ Work, the Making of a Modern Elder.”
"The natural order at work has typically been predicated by a hierarchy, or a food chain, that places older, experienced people above the younger newcomers,” he said. The new order, which Conley noted has "power cascading to the young in many companies,” can be uncomfortable for workers of all ages.
“I have a boss who is 32. She has more higher education experience than I do. Experience-wise, she totally should be my boss … It was such an odd experience for her, obviously, and for me,” Caroline told me.
So if you’re getting ready to return to work, how do you successfully navigate a multigenerational workplace? Here are some tips:
Close your digital divide. Get over your tech fears by acknowledging where you lack confidence and skill – maybe you’re a social media newbie, or never really mastered Microsoft Office – and take some online courses to fill them. Try coursera.org, linkedin.com/learning or udemy.com
Style matters. You don’t have to dress like you’re 25, but you do need to dress current, said Caroline. “Get rid of the 1992 suit. Get with it. Try to look like you’re in the game. Get a haircut. Get new glasses. There are things you can do so that you are not the 'other' so obviously.”
Be ready to learn. The key to combatting ageism is to always be learning, says Sue Olson, who returned to work in 2012 after an 11-year career break and now works in human resources at a Silicon Valley tech company. “When I was looking, I was learning. I went to classes and conferences,” she told me. “[That way] I could come into an interview and just talk about what I was doing.”
And once you’re back, remember:
Bridge the generational divide through mutual mentoring. Each of the women I spoke to said they found themselves in mentoring roles with their younger counterparts, giving advice on work and balance, career development, dressing for work and more. “By respecting them as professionals and genuinely trying to get to know them, I have really enjoyed these relationships,” says Dede, who returned to work after a multi-year break.
Approach them as your equal. Patty who went back to school at the age of 56 and found herself in working groups with 20-year-olds. “Everybody is bringing something to the table.”
Change your perspective. Experience and maturity are a plus. “I had a skillset that no one could take away from me. It was like riding a bicycle. I just had to exercise those muscles that had been dormant,” Olson told me of her first weeks back. Now back after six years, she finds that her years of experience in HR have given her the “pattern recognition” her younger colleagues are lacking, which allows her to mentor them in making tough personnel decisions.
Your emotional intelligence complements their digital intelligence. Helen returned to work at the age of 50 after an 18-year break - and found herself reporting to a 26-year-old. However, she told me, her age is a huge asset at the art and antique auction house she works for because the clients, who are closer to Helen’s age, can relate to her better.
Embrace it! You are rewriting your story. “My life has changed a million times over in the short time I have been back to work as a fully relaunched professional,” Caroline told me. “My family is like, look at you. You are woke! Before, to them, I was just mom. Now I’ve totally rewritten my story.”
Ginny Brzezinski is Know Your Value’s comeback career contributor. She is co-writing a book on the subject with her sister-in-law, Mika Brzezinski. It will hit bookshelves in the fall of 2019