Mature candidates versus millennials: How can I compete?

Diversity is the name of the game in office life these days, and while huge strides have been made in the inclusion of women, gay people and ethnic  minorities, one major diversity issue that remains largely unmentioned in the industry is age.

Recently, I asked my readers what the biggest challenge in their career was, and I was shocked when a number of them came back to me saying something like this:

After 25 years in the industry, my biggest challenge is finding work at all. I’ve worked
with Fortune 500s and I have a lot of valuable experience. I got laid off last year,
and I’ve been struggling to find secure work since. I’ve got some project work and
consultancy going on the side, but what I really want is a full-time role. PR is a young
person’s game though, and I can’t seem to even get a foot in the door.

By and large, graduates take on entry-level jobs, become Account Managers by their mid-20s and often reach Account Director level or higher by their mid-30s. What does this mean for the job seeker at 50+? Despite the fact that more seasoned candidates are generally less likely to job hob, play politics for promotions, or go to a competitor in six months time for an extra $5,000 a year, there is a reluctance to hire job seekers perceived as “old”.

Lucy Kellaway wrote about this trend in the finance sector recently, and it’s clear there is an issue with ageism in Public Relations too. Here are seven tips and tactics for finding a new role as a mature candidate.

1. Don’t apologise for your experience – highlight it

In 1984, running for President of the United States at age 73, Ronald Reagan was asked if he was not too old for the role. He quipped: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience”. Reagan won the election by a landslide.

The need for senior counsel is stronger than ever. Although the Public Relations sphere is dominated by young people, there will always be a need for the experience of years. While technology changes and develops, the core principles of Public Relations remain the same. Few clients will want a 24-year-old graduate at the helm when a crisis breaks and they need to get a holding statement out immediately. Young people bring energy and enthusiasm to a team, but they need mentors and managers to steer them in the right direction.

Never apologise for your experience, use it to show what your Public Relations career can add to the organisation.

2. Use your contacts

After a couple of decades of a Public Relations career, it’s likely that you’ve got a lot of strong contacts in the industry. That’s a major advantage you’ve got over younger candidates. Can you ask one of them to hook you up with an interview? Do you have a phone book full of journalists for a given industry that you can bring with you to a new role? Are there clients you used to have a great relationship with that might come back to you if you’re working with a well-respected organisation? Your contacts could a major strength if they are leveraged correctly.

If you feel like your current contacts are not strong enough, start attending networking events. Local business brunches with guest speakers and industry events are a great place to start. Of course, online networking is important too – take part in Twitter chats for Public Relations and Communications, and reach out to people on LinkedIn on relevant topics.

3. Rewrite your resume focusing primarily on the last 10-15 years

Instead of opening a personal statement by saying: “A seasoned professional with 30+ years of experience in Public Relations…” try to narrow it down by saying something like: “With more than 10 years’ experience at Account Director level, I’m adept at managing teams, juggling budgets and creating impactful campaigns at the same time.”

For roles you held more than 15 years ago, there is no need to include a description of your position; just put the company name, job title and the dates you worked at the organisation.

Never put your date of birth, your marital status or details about your kids on there. It’s irrelevant, and it makes you sound out of touch. You can even leave the dates you went to school off if you’re concerned about that, leaving only your degree title, result and other relevant information like areas of research.

Do not put a photo on your resume. It’s bad practice at any age.

Remember, the only goal of your resume is to get an interview – once you’ve got that, you can explain any questions they have on your Public Relations career.
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4. Don’t fight technology

Digital natives have the upper hand when it comes to technology because they understand it intuitively. Don’t bother competing with millennials for trendy social media jobs that they are likely to be better suited to. You don’t need to become an SEO expert, but you do need to understand the basics. Stay up-to-date with tech trends, emerging social media sites and popular apps, and think about how they can be combined with traditional media to create integrated communications campaigns. This is the future of Public Relations, and practitioners who understand this and can demonstrate a combination of experience and expertise in this will be at an advantage.

Build a social following. Take to Twitter or build a blog – showing that you’re au fait with technology is a lot more credible than saying it. Understand the difference between a personal and professional social media account. Create your own content, or curate the work of thought leaders in your niche. Check out our Twitter account for ideas. Get on LinkedIn and get your former clients or colleagues to write recommendations for you – social proof is vital in getting your foot in the door.

5. Invest in your development continuously

Demonstrate a genuine interest in continuous development. If your last training course or workshop was in the 90s, that’s got to change. Consider going back to education. Getting a diploma or even a masters degree in digital marketing, social media or analytics could really turbo-charge your Public Relations career.

For those that don’t have the option of going back to education full-time,  another great option is to take smaller steps more often; attend regular seminars and conferences to stay at the top of your game. Be willing to listen to those younger than you on digital and tech matters.

Take time every day to read what the top websites in the industry like Ragan are talking about. Subscribe to blogs that focus on the industry (like this one – shameless plug)

6. Consider all your options

Although becoming an independent practitioner or consultant can seem like an intimidating prospect after a Public Relations career spent at an agency or in-house, it might be a great choice. It can seem like a less secure path, but working with four or five clients can actually be more secure; you’re unlikely to lose all your clients overnight in the same way that you can get laid off from a job with immediate effect.

Options include working remotely through sites like Upwork or The Work Crowd, registering with recruitment agencies that specialise in contract work and setting up your own practice.

7.  Money matters: Be upfront and realistic about your salary expectations

One of the things that holds companies back from hiring Public Relations practitioners who are highly experienced is the belief that they will demand much higher salaries than people with 10-15 years experience who are also able to do the job. If you’re vastly experienced, but your level of seniority does not correspond to the vast number of years you’ve spent in the field, you may need to take a look at your salary expectation. Look at what salary bands are in relation to the job title you’re going for rather than the number of years of experience you hold.

It may be the case that the security of a full-time, permanent role and the benefits that come with that are more important to you than a $100,000 salary. Be open and frank (at the appropriate point of the conversation) with the the companies you’re talking to when it gets to the point that they’re ready to make an offer.

Have you been impacted by ageism in your Public Relations career? What steps did you take to combat it? Leave a comment.

Many thanks to all those who helped me research this article, especially Bruce ConditNatasha Netschay Davies and Tim O’Brien.

Strategic Communications: The Science Behind the Art is a practical guide to creating integrated communications campaigns. It’s all about achieving optimum PR outcomes using the PESO model. Pre-order it now.


28 thoughts on “Mature candidates versus millennials: How can I compete?

  1. Peter Hollenbach says:

    Having given this post, which did intrigue me, a modicum of thought. I decided that I may not be in the best position to give advice. That said, coddled millennial are babies. Even in the 20th century, it was hard to find someone who could write anything beyond their resume, not to mention a decent lede for an even press release, (never mind how to sell it) . I think, many of us, forget that we’ve been there and done that. I have no need of work now, but sympathize who do. Remember, accomplishments count. And, if all else fails, remind your prospective employer that age and guile beat youth and enthusiasm, hands down

    • Ray says:

      Couldn’t agree more. Especially around millenials. I have been a ‘fly on the wall’ in some situations for brainstorming sessions – and what l learned shocked me. Apart from having little understanding of basic business requirements (insert – do not have the ability to talk the same language as their clients) and a lack of solid writing skills, l was shocked at how ‘ad hoc’ a lot of the thinking was. It was a) not aligned with business strategy b) focused on short term metrics c) lacked insight and ability to see their work as part of a greater whole. I was also disappointed to see a focus on new technology with traditional methodologies being thrown away as they are too old school. An experienced communication professional knows that they all have their uses and that a well balanced integrated campaign is going to be more effective. After all, we really are only talking about different channels and to my way of thinking – from many years of internal and external communication experience – it is all about reading audiences where they live and creating meaningful content that cuts through the noise. Social is just another tool.

      Younger PR professionals would do well to spend time understanding how a business measures success, from brand metrics to sales performance. I have long argued that PR efforts should be included in, for example, Nielsen brand tracking to gauge what influence PR efforts are having on awareness, preference, or whatever elements the business is focused on. A good integrated social campaign can have read benefits but l would argue it means little to a business that puts bottom line sales as its prior. Sure the campaign should of helped, but how exactly? I am sure many here would have heard this before. Yes 200,000 unique visitors is good, but how much did each click cost, did they receive a call to action, did they in fact take any action, etc.

  2. Craig Rothenberg says:

    This is a very thoughtful, well written article. While I think point #5 touches on an important point, it may not go far enough. I retired in the Spring of 2015, and have been consulting ever since. I have seen many of my generation act as though they have learned all they need to know about our field and business, though believe that neither could be further from the truth. Continuous learning, exploiting new technologies and continuing to sharpen one’s business acumen remain vital to success and relevance in our field, and while I believe there is ageism in all fields (not unique to PR/Corporate Comms), the best antidote is remaining current with one’s knowledge and skills.

  3. Tom Hill says:

    I recently interviewed for an Internal Communications Manager position at Levi Strauss & Co. A job I’m more than suitably qualified for, with 25 years of experience. During the interview with the hiring manager, when I mentioned that I moved to the Bay Area when I was 18 years old, she asked if it was the Gold Rush that brought me here. This was my first known encounter with ageism.

      • Ben Whittaker says:

        Ouch — way to add insult to injury! Oh sure, it does sound like a line out of a comedy (and possibly was – see Robert DeNiro as “The Intern”). But in real life there is no time or place in a professional setting where that Gold Rush statement would be hilarious. Many of the commenters here are right on, by the way. There is too much focus now on specific skills such as social media, mostly as ways to weed out job candidates, rather than seeking out people with broader understanding of communication concepts and what drives the business. (Do you understand the financial statements? Can you make sense out of a pile of data?) It might take a day to learn a new project management system or how to manipulate a social channel, but the principles of communication — and knowing how to apply them — are timeless. This is the hand we’re dealt, though, as your article points out, so we have to play along. What’s sad is that most of the shiny toys will be replaced in a few years anyway. BTW what is a “Vine expert” doing these days? But back to your “would be hilarious” comment: It’s perfect proof of my point about not understanding basics of communication. Maybe United’s CEO should’ve followed your approach…. “You know, dragging that guy down the aisle of an airplane? If he hadn’t been hurt or had his dignity destroyed, that would be hilarious!”

        • Wilde Words says:

          I think it’s your comprehension skills that need work! When someone says “it would be funny if it wasn’t so serious”, the implication is that because it is so serious, it’s not funny at all. The comparison between me and United is totally unfair. You come across as having a very large chip on your shoulder, maybe that’s why you struggle in the workplace?

  4. Ceri Gauci says:

    I can really relate to this situation. I have 16 years’ experience in marketing and communications, but I’m aware that my digital skills need refreshing, which is difficult when you work in local government where there is little training budget and out of date technical software. I’ve resorted to finding a free online digital marketing course which I do at home. Really want a new job now and need to progress but feel that I can’t move forward until I update my skills so that I can compete.

  5. Earl M. Hairston says:

    This is a great article because it succinctly captures what each of us is told by career counselors but in a much more easier to remember and therefore useful format.
    I find that despite the younger generations’ mastery of social media and technology, it still does not help them unfortunately with research, crisis communication, decision-making, team work and confrontation.

  6. Rick Clancy says:

    A good read. Went through a bit of this myself. After a long PR career with agencies, on Wall Street and then 20 years at Sony (12 heading corp. comm. for the U.S. electronics business), I pivoted to an digital marketing and software startup. Learned a lot and helped the company get aquired. Then and now onto academia as a POP (professor of practice) for PR at UNC. Love teaching millennials a thing or two, while learning from them at the same time.

  7. Mark Baird says:

    I have several degrees. I have won awards for my accomplishments from two U.S. Presidents. I received the Congressional Medal of Merit. I was featured in PEOPLE magazine. I have helped build multiple successful businesses as CEO. I am 66. I have not even gotten 1 reply to my job applications for 15 years! Fortunately, I know how to make money by myself. But it is obvious to me that extreme Ageism exists!

  8. Tracy Austin says:

    Ultimately, PR is about connecting with people/publics. With that in mind, experience matters. You made an excellent point about continuing education. We are responsible for keeping ourselves and our skills relevant. Great article!

  9. Andrew Rodaway says:

    So… a few tips:

    1) Stop whining about it. It isn’t going to change and it isn’t going to help.

    2) Be a sage. You can get away with a lot more as an old git, but you have to make sense. Use your brains.

    3) Don’t be afraid to throw rubbish ideas under the bus. Millenials are scared of everything. Challenge groupthink and weedy ideas. Be outrageous.

    4) Have enough money saved up to tell people to piss off. Have some pride.

    5) Start up on your own. No politics, no stupid corporate rules, just your own talent.

    6) Trust me, you need to look out for yourself now. Overpromise and overdeliver. Work your nuts off – you don’t need as much sleep. Most corporate types contribute bugger all. Be the person that gets the job done. Be the scary old bloke that can do anything. Digital is a piece of piss. Ideas are the hard bit.

    That’s all.

    • Wilde Words says:

      Interesting. What makes you think millenials are “scared of everything”? My own experience is that millennials are more likely to challenge the “we’ve always done it this way” thinking that comes from middle management.

      • Jane Sadler says:

        Millennials are at a life-stage where careerism is likely. In other words they might be tempted to do and say nothing that risks the favour of their bosses and prospective bosses. Such a modus operandi is not conducive to sound counsel, good leadership, creativity, innovation and anything much else that they have been hired for. It’s not always the case of course but…

  10. Andrew Rodaway says:

    Yep – scared of everything, even if they don’t know it yet. Scared of technology they use but don’t understand. Scared of a future where their jobs are being roboticised. Scared of stupid politicians and stupid ideologies. Scared of Africa, China and India. Scared of unaffordable healthcare. FOMO. I could go on… If they aren’t scared, they should be.

    The point is, the oldies have had a pretty good run at it, and now we have the opportunity and the money to be the innovators, the shakers-up, the disintermediators, the disruptors, the crazy ones. Millenials run with the Uber-generation herd and think they are challenging the norm. .

    Social media (the millenials’ brain-dead solution of choice to every problem, including PR) isn’t even new. It was around in the 80s, just not as pervasive. Look up ‘BIX’ if you don’t believe me.

    Trust me on this: The areas where real disruption is taking place – genome therapies, big analytics, nanotech, extended number theory, optical materials, deep space science, quantum electronics, renewables – isn’t being done by a bunch of beardy hipsters. It’s mainly boring old engineers and scientists who trained in the 80s and 90s.

    Yes, corporations need a shake-up, but they always have done. Dig out a few best-selling business books from the 60s and you’ll be stunned by how the messages are identical to the present. People get sucked into the corporate mindset, get jammed into the promotion structure and the performance reviews, and it all goes to shit.

    If I could give one piece of advice to a newly-qualified millennial job seeker, it’s this:

    Don’t get a job.

    Welcome to the machine. 😉

  11. Carlene Byron says:

    Heard a surprising comment from a millennial female during a conversation about the job market: “You and my mom have an advantage over me because you’ve already done the kids thing. No one thinks you’ll quit to have a family.” Ouch for five decades of the feminist movement! Of course, millennial female could point out to potential employers that the moderate odds she’ll leave if she has kids are certainly no higher than the (super high) odds any millennial will leave a job in less than 3 years.

  12. David Jacob says:

    The article points out experiences encountered and the results of actions taken to circumvent the situation faced by ageism. Faith in the source of knowledge and insight and the promise that lie therein holds the key. Making the right confession and looking at the job or role you wish with prayer and patience is my solution.

  13. robert hinkle says:

    Good article… fact is, we all have a place in the industry… millennial youth and enthusiasm as well as experience, wisdom and a whole lot of “been there, done that!”

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