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Future proofing against being passed over for a job?
August 18, 2012 11:37 AM   Subscribe

I'm a web developer, and I'm growing concerned that somewhere down the line from my career, I'll be passed over for jobs because of younger people. Is this concern justified, and if so, what steps can I take to prevent it?

This is a more nebulous question and not one that can be immediately answered, but I wanted to ask it anyway.

I'm a twentysomething web developer. I've noticed that in the past few years, older people who have been let go from jobs are having much harder times finding jobs since younger people are cheaper, more up on things, etc. I'm starting to become more paranoid that, in 10 or 15 years, I'll be in the same position they are.

Do you think my paranoia is justified? Are there things I can do to stop this from happening to me? Clearly this isn't happening to everyone, so what are the people who are still employed doing correctly?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (19 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
Clearly this isn't happening to everyone, so what are the people who are still employed doing correctly?

Building personal brands. One way to ensure that you are never a plug and play component that can be easily replaced by a newer, cheaper model is to distinguish yourself as unique in some way, shape or form. Its upside is that you can never be replaced per se but the downside or caveat is that then you're increasingly narrowing your focus areas and/or specialities over time and thus not open for any old project or work that comes along.

Take a look a the experienced and regularly employed people upstream from where you are at right now in your career and see if you can find a pattern in why they are selected for particular projects or hired for certain work.
posted by infini at 11:41 AM on August 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm starting to become more paranoid that, in 10 or 15 years, I'll be in the same position they are.

Yes and now. In some sense... well obviously. That's the march of history as instantiated in an individual life. We gradually become our parents, horrifying as that may sound.

In another sense, not necessarily. The unemployment rate goes down the older you get. Younger people may be cheaper, but older people generally know what the devil they're doing. Experience is incredibly valuable. There are a lot of employers who are actively hiring, just not in entry level positions.

what are the people who are still employed doing correctly?

Having valuable skills coupled with valuable experience. That and a good work ethic. Emphasis does go on "valuable" though. If you're in a technical field, stay current. Seriously. If you're in web development, keep up on new standards and tools. If you're in law, read the cases as they come out and stay current with legislation and rules. Etc. Younger people may seem "more up on things," but they are also uniformly less experienced at actually doing things. Employers know this. Stay flexible, and you'll stay in demand, and your increased skills will make you a more and more valued employee.

That being said, there really isn't anything you can do to proof yourself against paradigm shifts. Weavers went out of business when mill factories were introduced. Lamplighters went out of business when electricity was introduced. Etc. Not much to be done about that, I'm afraid.

But on the whole though, this is largely an unjustified fear. True, the older you get, the harder it is to re-enter the workforce after you've been out of it. But the older you get, the less likely you are to be out of the workforce anyway. Youth unemployment is really, really high. For people under 19, the rate is a whopping 23.8%. For people 20-24, it's 13.5%. For people 25-34, it's 8.2%. For people 45-54, it's 6.9%, and for people 55 to 64, it's 6.5%. You are more than twice as likely to be unemployeed as a 20-24 year old than as a 55-64 year old.
posted by valkyryn at 11:55 AM on August 18, 2012


Continue to learn new things. I've noticed in my line of work that some of the older people haven't learned the tools/best practices/etc that have come out in, say, the last 15-20 years. This makes them less desirable. You can see how this happens -- as you get older, your time commitment to learning new skills change as you get married, have a family, or whatever. But if you don't put in that time, your skills become dated and it's hard to sell outdated skills.

Also, continue to learn old things. By that I mean, dive deep into your subject matter, so that you have breadth and depth. This is something that younger people have not had time or experience to do, so it's an advantage that justifies a higher wage than they earn. Your portfolio will look more sophisticated, you'll be able to engage in conversations with hiring managers in a more meaningful way, and you'll be more of the person who can solve any problem rather than a younger person who is still seeing problems for the first time.

Define a career path. Do you want to work for yourself? Start a company and hire others? Become a manager? Pursue an alternate career path in which you are "expert" and maybe a planner and project manager, but not a people manager? Start now to put yourself on the path that takes you where you want to be when you are older. Identify people who are one, two, or three steps further along that path than you are, and ask for their advice and help. Continue to do this for your entire career.
posted by Houstonian at 11:57 AM on August 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's going to happen. The issue isn't so much "younger" as it is "cheaper." That being said, the way to protect yourself is to specialize. Develop a unique style or skill set.

If people hire you because you're a web developer, you're pretty much screwed.
If people hire you because you're the best at something specific, you're irreplaceable.
posted by 2oh1 at 12:08 PM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


One way to think of it is "Can this be off-shored or out sourced?" If you're doing work that could be accomplished by an off-shore firm (standard development from established specs, system testing, etc), then you'll eventually be replaced by cheaper labor.

On the other hand, technology strategy, company subject matter experts and domain expertise, managing a on/off site workforce are thing which always stay in house (or go out briefly and get pulled back).
posted by 26.2 at 12:16 PM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's both younger and cheaper. I worked for one company (quit not soon after this) where the CEO said he wanted to hire young salespeople because they had fewer distractions (family).

I've been laid off because for my senior salary, one could cover 1.3 to 1.5 more junior positions (that company months later advertised the same position so they could convert an H1B employee to a greencard).

The key is to be professional, productive, current, and connected. Junior people may have the middle skills, you should have all four. Keep learning new technologies, grow your network and reputation, and you will be in a good position.
posted by zippy at 12:20 PM on August 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh, also, the web developers I've known who were exceptional to the point of irreplaceable either had excellent UI/UX or product skills. And they cared about what they built and had a strong sense for what mattered to the user.
posted by zippy at 12:24 PM on August 18, 2012


Lots of good advice above. I would add: people skills are really important and coupled with that, the ability to get close to whatever part of your business is customer facing. You don't have to lose a technical focus, bit the person who understands the client _and_ knows how to turn that into an implementation is much mote valuable than a person who just turns out code from a spec.
posted by crocomancer at 12:29 PM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


In my field, almost all web/IT staff are 40+, and I have to believe that is mainly a result of people skills and public speaking skills. They are able to converse clearly and authoritatively, but generally do not "talk down" to the less tech-savvy. In at least one case, the person did not really have the greatest skills, but was pleasant to deal with and usually managed to farm out projects he himself couldn't do. Others resented his high salary, but acting as a liaison is a skill in itself. So you might think about developing "soft skills" and presentation skills (I have friends who swear by Toastmasters), learn to crack a few jokes, or even branch into the sales side of things.
posted by lily_bart at 12:49 PM on August 18, 2012


Great advice above.

To add a few points:

1. Proactively research, experiment and propose new technologies. Big Data using Hadoop, large scale web application development using multiple technologies, NoSQL or MongoDB instead of traditional SQL DBs etc are areass where you can contribute

2. Develop Architecture, SW Engineering skills that will make you rise above the "just another developer" tag. The ability to setup continuous integration boxes, run builds and automated tests involving rapid (almost daily) releases is highly valued. At a higher level, designing a scalable, robust, high-performance solution that can achieve business objectives will increase your marketability

3. As someone mentioned above, packaging all these skills in language that execs, business folks and project managers can understand is like "attractive packaging." Skills are still valid, but having the packaging makes for an easy sell

Also, if you are involved in a large-scale transformation program in an organization right from the start and have a great grasp of the business workflow as well as the technical details, you can typically stay there for a long time :)

All the best in your career.
posted by theobserver at 1:19 PM on August 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Building personal brands. One way to ensure that you are never a plug and play component that can be easily replaced by a newer, cheaper model is to distinguish yourself as unique in some way, shape or form

The flip side to that advice is to not get too specialized either. Don't let yourself become a great expert in a technology that goes away. Obviously everything goes away eventually and since you're looking at another forty years of a career, who knows where things will be by then but take care not to run your career into a cul-de-sac.
posted by octothorpe at 1:31 PM on August 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Put yourself in the shoes of some decision-maker who is trying to decide between you and someone who can do what you do who's younger and/or offshore and thus cheaper. You're competing with fresh-energy and cheap - you need something compelling to win that fight. If you're known as someone pleasant, highly competent, very experienced... someone who makes credible estimates, doesn't fudge or sugar-coat, communicates clearly, is quick to understand the needs of the customer, and can effectively zero in on ambiguity and vanquish it... and someone who by the by is a pleasant lunch companion and maybe even remembers to ask about your kids. Then the decision-maker will feel themselves secure because they are in such pleasant and proven hands. They will be willing to pay a premium for such security, and they will be loathe to lose it by choosing someone else and thus possibly alienating you.

In short, as many have said above: people skills.
posted by tempythethird at 1:36 PM on August 18, 2012


But the older you get, the less likely you are to be out of the workforce anyway.
In which alternate universe?

The thing about building your personal "brand" is that, eventually, you will become focused on a set of skills and work on becoming the best in those areas. The issue with that is, while you're becoming the best at those skills, a whole new generation is coming up, being nursed on the myriad new technologies that are only barely on your radar. It's inevitable, really. They're sponges, soaking-up every possible new influence and direction, while you're a seasoned veteran honing your considerable, focused skills. And they're a lot cheaper than you.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:52 PM on August 18, 2012


In addition to great advice above, I'll throw this out there- if you're looking to specialize, don't just specialize in technology, but look to grow within an industry. The industry-specific experience will make you more valuable than just a web developer who builds whatever sites get thrown at them.

Find a sector that you enjoy working in (be it hospitality, entertainment, finance, fashion, etc) and grow within that sector. Each industry has it's own quirks, knowledge, personalities, and peculiarities that you learn with experience. There are a lot of people who know javascript, but knowing javascript and knowing how to work within the banking industry (for example) will make you more valuable (to the banking industry, at least).
posted by tommccabe at 2:23 PM on August 18, 2012


There's only one method I know of that will work in the long run. Go into management. You can try many of the suggestions above and they'll help for a decade or two, but ultimately the young will prevail. Even timeless tech skills give way to fashion and trends. For example, Microsoft has done well renaming older technologies and passing them off as new. Also, the young managers aren't as comfortable hiring or managing older people.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:05 PM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's only one method I know of that will work in the long run. Go into management.

Yep, nurture mentoring skills, the ability to run a project to deadline/budget and to sell your product and the company you work for credibly with important clients of all different types.
posted by jamesonandwater at 4:52 AM on August 19, 2012


Thinking strategically, with foresight never hurts. I think the very fact that you're asking this question now gives you teh widest possible play in choosing the path, thus the stepping stones, to maximize your opportunities by attempting to gain a seriously irreplaceable set of experiences i.e. projects you worked on
posted by infini at 7:44 AM on August 19, 2012


There's only one method I know of that will work in the long run. Go into management. You can try many of the suggestions above and they'll help for a decade or two, but ultimately the young will prevail. Even timeless tech skills give way to fashion and trends. For example, Microsoft has done well renaming older technologies and passing them off as new. Also, the young managers aren't as comfortable hiring or managing older people.

You don't necessarily have to become a manager, but just be able to do it. Get a project management cert or an MBA or something like that. Even if you are never asked to use it, the fact that you went and got it shows that you aren't fossilized.

And that's the problem with getting older in the workplace. People get entrenched and develop a sense of entitlement and get "crusty" for lack of a better term. I've noticed that the people who end up gone in the workplaces I interact with are the ones who become inflexible. You don't have to go "Creed Bratton" and dye your hair with shoe polish and say "cool beans", but you have to be receptive to new technologies and processes. Don't be the guy in the meeting who blurts out "that'll never work, we tried that in '96 and it failed." Instead, be the guy who MAKES the decision, or at least the one who gets consulted about it.

Emphasize and leverage your experience. When some new thing appears, be among the first to learn it and understand it, and help the more youthful understand it.

At the same time, figure out how to use your experience to know when the environment at a company is becoming sour and the time to jump ship is nearing. When the young wonderchildren get put in charge of things and start to fail in catastrophic ways, be the first to notice and move to a competitor. Not out of disloyalty, but of self-preservation. If your company starts failing and you can't do anything to stop it, don't hang around.
posted by gjc at 9:06 AM on August 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


At the same time, figure out how to use your experience to know when the environment at a company is becoming sour and the time to jump ship is nearing. When the young wonderchildren get put in charge of things and start to fail in catastrophic ways, be the first to notice and move to a competitor. Not out of disloyalty, but of self-preservation. If your company starts failing and you can't do anything to stop it, don't hang around.

This.

I just fired the client 2 months into a 3 month contract. And it wasn't like I didn't need the money either. But you learn where the sand is when you draw the line.
posted by infini at 9:59 AM on August 19, 2012


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