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Baby Boomer: How to Stay Relevant

by David DeJean

Krista Bradford remembers the precise moment she first encountered ageism. She had worked as a television reporter and anchorwoman for more than two decades with top jobs in major markets and network news magazine shows.

She had just turned 40, she says, when she went to see an agent at William Morris. "He said to me, 'Your age is now a factor.' I didn't have a wrinkle on my face. I had won more awards that year than ever. But it gave me pause."

What did she do? "I decided to write a new chapter." She left TV and went to college to get a long-postponed degree. And she founded her own business, Bradford Research, which performs competitive intelligence research for startups and Fortune 500 companies. Building on her years of experience as an investigative journalist, she also helps her clients locate and recruit senior executives and board members.

Now that she's seen ageism from both sides, it still doesn't make any sense to her. "Ageism is just prejudice against somebody due to the number attached to their identity," she says. "Generally, it's perceiving that somebody is too old to do something. It is clearly illegal, so smart recruiters never ask questions about age. More importantly, smart recruiters know age is irrelevant. What matters is whether somebody is at the peak of his or her game, young at heart, enthusiastic. Your ability to do a job is a matter of attitude and leadership qualities, and those things have nothing to do with age."

But the reality is young people, many of whom have formidable computer skills, are key players in today's information-based economy, and older workers need to find a way to fit in and stay relevant.

Seek Opportunities Where Your Experience Matters

Bradford used her experience to build a new career. "I was a closet geek even when I was working in TV," she says. "I used computers and did research on the Internet. When I started my own business, I found those skills transferred." She started her business as a research company that did candidate identification. "We would find people who appeared to be stellar candidates at a senior executive level, contact them to determine if they're really worthy, then present them to the client." Researching skills and familiarity with new technologies gave her new venture an edge.

Market Your Expertise

Experience is a selling point only if you let people know you have it, says Bradford. "The majority of search firms and recruiting companies now use the Internet as a research tool to identify candidates, so if you speak at a conference or are quoted in an article that appears on the Net, or your bio is on your company's Web site -- those are all beneficial to your advancement."

Develop Your Information Skills

Be Internet savvy. "It's less a matter of age and more a matter of whether you get the Internet," she says. If you're in a mature industry, lead Internet initiatives for your company. "We look for the firebrands who have understood the possibilities of what the Internet and technology mean for their companies. When I go into a non-tech company, I try to find where it intersects with the Internet and who is working at that intersection."

Be High-Energy

"Something I hear a lot from clients is, 'Are they high-energy?'" says Bradford. "You have to keep your energy level up while talking to recruiters and interviewers. Fast talkers win. Think at Internet speed. Long pauses may very well undermine your presentation and eliminate you from consideration."

Keep Up Appearances

You don't have to look 25, she says, but "I do think that, like TV personalities, executives in Internet industries do think about presenting a youthful appearance. Trying to appear as young as possible or as healthy as possible is a natural reflex."

Bradford says she's talked to people whose fears of ageism have them considering everything from dyeing their hair to more extreme measures like plastic surgery. If it gives you confidence, she says, go for it, but be careful not to do anything unnatural or so radical it says you aren't comfortable with who you are. That goes for wardrobe as well. You may want to get some advice on updating your look, but remember, she says, succeeding is "a matter of emotional and mental state, experience and leadership. It's about that, not about a number."

Master Computer Skills

If you want to work in the information economy, you have to prove you belong there, and nothing says more about your qualifications than your computer skills. "Not having an email address or not being able to attach a resume to an email can make a candidate look uninterested," says Bradford. "Take a computer course if you don't have the confidence. Get an email account and learn to use it well, surf the Web and get familiar with the territory where you say you want to be."

Make sure your resume and the way you send it reflect your computer skills. "Only people who don't get it mail their resumes," says Bradford. "Faxing is almost as bad. It signals that you may not be wired to the Internet or comfortable using email. It also indicates you don't understand that recruiters need resumes that are in data form so we can search the text."

Find a Reverse Mentor

"Mentoring doesn't have to be about an older person teaching a younger one," says Bradford. "If you work with somebody in their 20s, take them as a mentor. You'll learn about more than computers. Executives should be aware of what's coming. And there's a new batch of workers coming in who are just amazingly fluent with computers, natural and at ease. Mentor somebody and get mentored back."

Counter the Objections

Bradford finds older job candidates themselves are more likely to raise concerns about age than hiring companies. Older folks often say they fear their experience makes them more expensive, a topic Bradford has written about on a Web site she developed out of her TV experience. "Older, more experienced people have to deal with the idea that inexperienced talent is typically cheaper, so they're competing with people who cost less. That will continue to be an issue."

"But on the other hand -- maybe with the recent market changes and past dotcom failures -- you may now have a movement toward older, wiser types, she adds. "That could be a selling point."

Bradford also works to dispel some of the myths surrounding the so-called kiddie culture of the dotcom era. Internet, technology and startup companies do tend to have management teams that are, on average, younger than those in more-established firms, says Bradford. But that doesn't mean she inevitably winds up presenting to candidates who are older than her clients.

"We often recruit executives who are older than the CEO, but it's because I've worked with brilliant young CEOs who want to recruit experience. The real issue for them isn't ageism or avoiding the appearance of ageism. It's trying to find the right balance among team members," says Bradford.

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