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Hey Boomers: ‘Stay Gold, Ponyboy’

Older workers in America are underutilized and underappreciated. They’re among our most talented assets, but face multiple challenges.

I like to tell myself that I’m still a young man, and in many ways, I still am. I’m active, mentally sharp (just ask me) and some would say at the apex of my career.

But at night, on the highway of life, I see the mileage sign for a destination that’s creeping closer and closer. That destination? Let’s call it “Old Towne.”

It’s where older workers (we’ll loosely define that as those over 50) go to do the following — live in fear of being laid off from their companies, spend their modest severance when they are separated and commiserate about how rough the job market is on older workers.

Misery loves company. That’s why Old Towne is booming.

Older workers in America are underutilized and underappreciated. They’re among our most talented assets, but face multiple challenges, some of which are unfair and some of which are self-inflicted.

Let’s cover the self-inflicted wounds first. As the knowledge, talent and age of a worker rises, it’s often accompanied by a drop in perceived energy, change agility and professional passion. These perceptions, real or imagined, are recorded while total compensation for the same worker rises.

Those self-inflicted wounds provide great cover for companies to move to a younger workforce. If the asset becomes more expensive but perceived productivity is flatlining, the obvious choice to many is to go younger — and cheaper.

Age discrimination? Yeah, that’s illegal. But you won’t win chasing that as an older worker. The better plan is to look different than your peers related to energy, change agility and professional passion.

There’s a great scene in the movie “The Outsiders” where Johnny Cade (Ralph Macchio) utters the line “Stay gold, Ponyboy” to C. Thomas Howell (aka Ponyboy). It’s reference to the poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost and a hat tip to the thought that all good things must come to an end.

Johnny Cade recites the line because he knows that Ponyboy is better than his companions and wants him to hold onto the golden qualities that set him apart from his peers.

If you’re an older worker, I want you to stay gold. Here’s my cheat sheet for how you can separate yourself from your AARP peers:

Do what you can to build a professional profile separate from your company. The biggest lie the devil ever told us is that we should pour all our energy into the company we work for.

You must treat your company fairly, but allocating 100 percent of your professional energy to your employer is a sucker’s play. I know it feels unnatural, but you have to find other avenues where you can become familiar with your work. Consider it a precursor to networking.

Be interested and passionate about what you do for a living. Closely related to finding outlets outside of your company is your passion for your profession.

You get judged by the world as an older worker by what you’ve done to stay current. More impactful than additional degrees or certifications is a portfolio of work that shows you’re chasing new ideas or emerging trends. The ability to chase new things also impacts how agile you’re viewed related to change.

Don’t be locked in that you can never go backward in pay. I know, you’ve got bills. Moving backward in pay never feels good, but it may be necessary.

Get as much money as you can when the time comes to change companies, but understand that earning 80 percent of your current salary at the right company with the right future is a superior position to being laid off and on a two-year “sabbatical” with no end in sight.

Stay one step ahead, and get out of town before the posse arrives. Do all signs point to the fact that your company is going to go through another round of layoffs? Do you find yourself digging a foxhole and hoping for the best without doing any of the things I’ve listed to this point?

The best time to get a job (at any age) is when you have a job. Be brave enough to understand your circumstances and jump if necessary if the situation is right. Risky? Yes, but you’re likely underestimating the risk of staying.

Look like the 2.0 version of yourself. You haven’t updated your look because you haven’t been threatened. Being proactive with your career prospects means you probably need to ditch double-pleated pants if you’re a guy. I’m no expert, so look into how to do this for your gender and drop some limited funds into a wardrobe refresh.

Life is tough in Old Towne. I’m going to visit soon, but before I get there I wanted to offer encouragement to you. I think you’re different than most of the people in Old Towne, but you’ve got to take action to prove it.

Stay gold, Ponyboy.

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.