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The New Rules of Job Interviewing for Boomers (and All of Us)

Today, it isn't the pleasingest job-seeker who gets the nod. It's the person the employer most believes can solve its problems.

My inbox is deluged with job-search queries. That's understandable: the job market remains tepid, and Kiplinger’s doesn’t see the unemployment rate droppingbelow 9% this year.

Some of my correspondents want suggestions on job-search direction or particular employers. Most of them do not. The vast majority of folks seek guidance on the ultra-specific Do’s and Don'ts in a job search. "Is it okay to wear capri pants to an interview, if I wear a jacket in the same fabric?" one lady inquires.

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"Is it true that aviator glasses are back in style, and are they appropriate for a job interview?" a gentleman asks. Another lady wonders, "Is pink resume paper still appropriate, or should I switch to beige or white?" One fellow worries about the single earring in his earlobe: "I'm 50. Does the earring make me look creative or like Captain Hook?"

I expect a rash of these "Should I? May I?" job-search questions from new college grads. But it's baby- boomers who are most curious -- and anxious -- about granular job-search protocols.

My advice: Stop worrying about the "Shoulds," and, instead, focus on your individual branding choices. Is it okay to wear capri pants (also known as clamdiggers or pedal pushers) on a job interview? There's no should about it; the capri pants are a branding choice, just like the earring (or the empty earring-hole, or unblemished expanse of skin) and the resume paper and the aviator glasses. We aren't going on a job interview to please anyone, in 2011. We're going to find out whether our brand fits with someone else's brand -- in this case, a prospective employer. This is a hard notion for some folks of my vintage to wrap their minds around. The Right Way and the Wrong Way to job-hunt have been replaced by Your Way, and that's disconcerting to many.

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Twenty or thirty years of brewing in the hot water called Convention have convinced many 40-, 50- and 60-somethings that the people who hew most closely to the standard, recommended practices will be first to be hired and last to be let go. That's astonishing to me, because we rule-following boomers have been so brutally affected by the wholesale offshoring of jobs and other massive, disruptive shifts in the employment marketplace. I sometimes call us the Bushwhacked Generation. We played by the rules, kept our noses to the grindstone, drank the Kool-Aid ("work hard and you'll get promoted, keep your job and retire from here with a party and a gold watch") and yet watched the corporate ladder crumble to sawdust under our feet.

Today, it isn't the pleasingest job-seeker who gets the nod. It's the person the employer most believes can solve its problems. Do's and Don'ts are mostly out the window (except for the Do's and Don'ts that apply to every interaction with other people: don't spit in the potted plants, don't curse at the interviewer, and don't ask him or her on a date). The question to ask isn't "What is acceptable?" but rather "How do I want to present myself to this employer?" This query begs the related question, "Who am I, at this stage in my life and career?" Many boomers have toiled away for decades at jobs they didn't love. Why force ourselves to fit into another job that doesn't inspire us or bring out our talents? Show up at a job interview (or in a resume, for that matter) as yourself, and you’ll be all the more compelling to employers -- and all the more likely to end up performing work you love. You might as well let them meet the real you if you’re going to consider working for them.

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Boomers – many of whom only found Facebook a year ago -- aren't generally well-versed in personal branding. "Who I really am" and "How I present myself to employers" are non-intersecting circles on most boomers' personal Venn diagrams. It's a new day for job-seekers, and job-holders for that matter. All of the choices are ours, from resume-paper options to interview-conversation topics and even decisions about capri pants on interviews. You've got a brand. The right employers will love it, and the wrong ones will shun it (and you), and that's just as it should be. After all, if an employer doesn't get you, s/he doesn't deserve you.

I believe it. Do you?

Liz Ryan is a former Fortune 500 HR exec, an author and speaker on career and HR topics and the leader of the Ask Liz Ryan online community, an advice forumfor the new-millennium workplace. Visit Liz online at www.asklizryan.com.

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