Ask the Expert: Am I facing age discrimination?

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A. What you're noticing-a workplace filled with increasingly younger faces-is more than a manifestation of the natural order of things. Rod Williams, our outplacement expert, says, 'During the frenetic last decade, when number crunching and bottom-line-focused staff slashing went hand in hand, there was more than just a lukewarm tendency to target older, higher paid workers for corporate downsizing.'

There were older workers who survived the purges and some who thrived despite being axed. In both cases, their success was due not simply to 'recognized' star value within the company-which depends on the viewpoint of someone other than oneself-but to their 'cognizant' star value, which begins with you knowing your own star value and then taking steps to ensure it is recognized. 'The common thread among survivors and thrivers is that they tend to have proactive habits of securing positive PR for their accomplishments and the role they play in helping the company reach its goals,' says Williams. The bottom line: age doesn't have to be a liability unless it's your only 'recognized' professional characteristic.

You also suggest that your priorities have changed over time. Your life no longer revolves around work as it does for the younger generation. If much of your energy is spent with your family and outside of the workplace, good for you for knowing what is rewarding to you. But understand that in an area as competitive as equity research, your sense of commitment to the firm is likely to be compared with people who view their professional relationships as one of their top priorities. This is neither right nor wrong-it's reality.

On the other hand, says executive coach Maggie Craddock, 'I have found that in many cases, people who are a little bit older have an advantage once they learn to appreciate the depth of what they have to offer.' Early in your career you're often evaluated based on knowledge and stamina. As you progress professionally, you will also need wisdom and judgment to add value. Your personal experience and your history can be a source of inspiration to people at earlier stages in their careers.

'Figure out a way to either make yourself indispensable to others around or to get more involved in a few office or firm-wide activities during the work hours,' suggests recruitment expert Patricia Wieser. Channel your experience into a mentoring program, or start a diversity, best-practices, or training committee, for example. 'In each case you would be contributing to the company in areas where your age and experience are positives rather than negatives,' says Wieser.

To bridge the social gap, try initiating conversations around areas that capture your interest and see if your younger colleagues chime in. You may find there isn't really a wall there at all and that it's more about being willing to take that first step.

You may be interested to know that there's much being considered and written about the coming shortage of skilled workers. The shortfall comes from the continuing workplace defection of baby boomers (due to earlier, voluntary retirements) and the insufficient number of Gen-X-ers-in-waiting. Already, think tanks and smart companies are looking ahead to determine what needs to be done creatively to keep baby boomers actively involved in some capacity beyond their retirement age. 'Businesses in this country,' says Williams, 'can't afford to have all that expertise sitting on the sideline and still hope to compete in the global economy.'

For you to compete, then, show your value; that turns out to be an ageless strategy for success.

Next week's question: Senior management in my firm seems to change every six months. How am I supposed to maintain momentum in my career when I have no idea who I'm going to be reporting to by next fall?

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Look out for the Experts' answer to this dilemma and readers' comments on Ask the Expert next week.

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