01/20/2013 09:25 am ET Updated Mar 22, 2013

The Over-50 Guide To Career Growth

Midlife is full of challenges, and perhaps none are as daunting as holding onto, growing in or finding your way back onto the career path. Needless to say, the U.S. economic downturn only makes the situation even more challenging for the millions of midlifers trying to stay afloat. If you're feeling stuck or thwarted in your ability to keep your career going, you may be willing to do anything to bring home a paycheck. Fortunately, however, psychology can offer valuable pointers to ease your emotional burden.

Let's start by looking at the ways that vocational psychologists understand the course of career growth. They've moved far away from the traditional "three box of life" models that see career development as a straight path from education to work to retirement. Current occupational researchers no longer see people's career paths within the work phase of life as straight either. Instead, these job experts talk about careers as having the potential to be "protean" and "boundaryless."

Let's unpack these terms. The protean career is one that allows workers to express their own values in their work. By being self-directed, workers can more clearly behave in ways consistent with their identities. Protean workers decide for themselves how to prioritize their work tasks. They are more motivated by what they enjoy and want to do than by the paycheck, status or perks of the job. Research on motivation shows that people are more satisfied with their jobs if they have at least some of this protean self-direction.

Nice work if you can get it, right? Who wouldn't rather have a job that you can feel emotionally connected to instead of feeling that you're a puppet of your boss? However, before you give up on this idea as completely impractical for you, stop and think about whether you could build some of this mindset into your life right now. Are there perhaps small choice points in your job that you can steer in the protean direction? It's possible that if you talk to your supervisor and suggest ways that you could build more of your personal interests and preferences into your job, you could take a small piece of the protean pie. Maybe you can join, or form, a committee that works on a project during lunch or break time, such as assisting in the company's recycling policies or charity work. Perhaps this is why company bowling leagues and softball teams are so popular. These extracurricular pursuits can help you approach your actual job tasks while you feel at least a modicum of self-direction.

The boundaryless career is another mindset that can help workers feel more satisfied. In a boundaryless career, workers don't feel stuck at working for the same company for decade after decade particularly if they don't like the company or if they feel that their growth is being stifled. This is a tough one to negotiate if you feel grateful to have any employer, particularly the one who's willing to keep you on the payroll during tough times. If that's the case, then your best bet is to keep that boundaryless mentality on the back burner until the employment situation improves. Who knows, new opportunities might open up and you'll be ready to take action when they do.

What makes some people love their jobs and others ready to shove them? A lot has to do with the match between your personality and the qualities of your particular occupation. This match, or "congruence," as it's called, reflects the meshing of six basic factors between you and the job: Artistic, Realistic, Conventional, Investigative, Social and Enterprising. You can go to the website " target="_hplink">O*NET and see how you measure up compared to the characteristics of each of thousands of occupations. This guide can also steer you towards occupations that might be best for you to embark on, if you're changing or just starting your career.

Now let's look at the situation for midlife adults who've been laid off or now find it necessary to jump back into the job market due to other changing life circumstances. Where do you begin? As you pore through the classified ads or enlist the help of a job agency, it's easy to feel that you're too old, that your skills are out of date, and that no one really wants to invest in your future, which you believe they see as limited. Clearly, it is easy to get discouraged, and understandable when you do. However, it's vital that at this stage of the game you do not give in to these feelings. There are actions you can take to make yourself marketable and desirable as a mature adult employee.

Most importantly, take care of your health. Getting exercise, proper diet, avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol use, and sleeping enough will benefit you on the inside but, just as importantly for you now, on the outside. If you're worried about looking too old for the job, failing to take these precautions will only make this a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Next, as you work on improving your physical appearance, take stock of the face you do present to the outside world and prospective employers. You don't have to dress like a 20-something (which would only be self-defeating), but you can make sure that your grooming is reasonably up-to-date. You don't need to do an extreme makeover, but you might benefit from a mini one. Ask people you know whose advice you respect to go career-clothes shopping with you. If you're a woman, find a department store or Sephora makeup artist who's willing to spend a little time polishing up your look. You don't need a lot of expensive makeup to pull this off. The advice will be free, and you can then figure out how to swap drugstore for the fancy brands.

If you're going to get that all-important interview, however, you need to make sure that your appearance online or on paper is completely up to snuff. Find a person with professional experience (not your spouse or parent) to read and critique your cover letters and resume. You might have a former employer or teacher with whom you were close, and who you respect, to serve in this role. It's absolutely essential that every single written word you communicate in your job search is constructed in a grammatical, professional, and interesting way including any and all emails. Employers who are going through hundreds of job applications will be trying to find the one that "sparkles." Compelling stories, thoughtful observations, and well-reasoned rationales for seeking the job are ways to make sure your letter is put into the "interview" rather than "reject" pile.

At this stage, it's especially important that you take your age and experience and put them in a positive light. Compare the job requirements with the skills you've gained in your life, and show why you are the perfect match. You'll be particularly effective if you emphasize your reliability, common sense and willingness to learn from experiences. Research shows, and many employers know, that older workers are more reliable, better job "citizens" and emotionally more stable. Instead of imagining how much better those younger applicants are than you, imagine the ways that you can beat them on these three vital aspects of job performance.

Finding satisfaction in your current job, or finding a job to be satisfied with, doesn't have to elude the over-50 worker. These tips are just the start, though, and if you'd like more information check out the additional links below from my Psychology Today blog:

Give Your Career Mindset a Tuneup
Writing a Compelling Life Story in 500 Words or Less (Writing Cover Letters and Personal Statements)
Making Recommendations Work for You
Selling It: Making Interviews Work for You
Your Vocational Type: The Key to Job Fulfillment