How to Avoid Getting Fired in Your 50s

You don’t want to get forced into retirement ahead of schedule.

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The Great Recession has been hard on everyone, including and perhaps especially older workers.

While the unemployment rate for people in their 50s is about 7 percent, compared to an overall rate of 9 percent, workers 55 and older generally stay unemployed for a longer period of time than younger people, according the Pew Economic Policy Group. Approximately 30 percent of unemployed people 55 or above have been jobless for a year or more, a higher rate than any other age group. And these numbers don’t even include the people who lose their jobs in their 50s and simply drop out of the workforce.

[See 30 Fast-Growing Careers for Older Workers.]

Some older workers who leave the workforce are legitimate early retirees, but many are not. I know at least a dozen people, both men and women, who were let go in their 50s, and only two who were able to land a new job. The rest are working part-time or not working at all and relying on their spouse or other relatives for their livelihood. These people are not counted in the official unemployment statistics, but that doesn’t make them any less real.

You do not want to get fired in your 50s. Here are three tips on how to keep your job.

1. Get with the program. In the movie Moneyball, manager Billy Beane brings in a kid with a new way to scout baseball players. Beane is sold on the new system because the old system didn’t work. But the old scouts don’t want to change, and the one who refuses to change gets fired. If your company is changing the way it does business, then get with the program. Once the top executives have made up their minds, the time for disagreement is over—unless you want to be pegged as a has-been who’s wedded to the old ways. And then, before long, you will truly be a has-been.

[See 7 Tips for Working for a Younger Boss.]

2. Learn new technological skills. There’s no faster way to get branded a dinosaur than to resist new technology. I recall a time, in my old job, when the vice president brought in a new software system. We all had to go for training. The new software required us to change our work habits and take on some extra mundane tasks. Some people complained about doing work they thought was beneath them, made fun of the new system, or attacked the new software with a passive-aggressive response. They refused to learn the system well enough to avoid problems, as if creating the problems would somehow justify their old jobs. It didn’t, and sooner or later, all those complainers were facing early retirement.

[See 10 Places to Launch a Second Career in Retirement.]

3. Be careful what you wish for. By the time we’re in our 50s, many of us have gotten used to periodic raises and promotions, and we expect to continue up the salary ladder. But be careful about asking for annual raises. You can price yourself out of the market. You can argue that your experience helps you to do your job better or more efficiently, and you might be right. But it doesn’t matter. Some of us, largely through seniority, make too much money for the jobs we do. If there’s a 30-year-old who can do the job at half the cost, why is the company keeping you around? Unless you’re getting new responsibilities, be careful about pushing for a raise. If you’ve been doing a good job, maybe it’s better to ask for a bonus instead. You get the money and then the next year, if the money isn’t there, you don’t lose your job because you cost too much.

Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement, and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.