By Anne Fisher, contributor
FORTUNE — Dear Annie: I read your recent column on bridging the generation gap in the workplace between young bosses and older employees. It struck a nerve with me, because, frankly, I’d be delighted to work for a young boss if I could just get one to hire me. I’m 53 and I was laid off last year from a senior marketing management position at a bank. Luckily, I have enough savings to live on for a while, since my job hunt seems to be taking forever.
All goes well until I show up for an interview with a 30-something hiring manager or HR person, and then I hear, “Oops! Sorry, the position has been filled, but thanks for coming in.” I’d like to think this isn’t because, like most people in their fifties, I have a few gray hairs and laugh lines, but it’s hard to draw any other conclusion. Do you and your readers have any suggestions for me? — Not Dead Yet
Dear N.D.Y.: Cold comfort though it may be, a long job hunt is perfectly normal these days, especially for anyone seeking a senior management job. “The higher your rank in your last position, the longer it takes to find a new one,” says Mark Anderson, president of ExecuNet, a national career network for $100,000-a-year-plus senior managers.
ExecuNet’s research shows, for example, that a vice president over age 50 takes 20% longer to get hired than a 41-to-45-year-old job seeker at the same level. But age is only part of the story. The main reason it now takes the average management job candidate at least 10 months to get hired is that “companies are taking longer to fill positions,” Anderson notes. “Many companies who have management openings are not aggressively looking to fill them.”
He points to a new ExecuNet survey that says that only 16% of employers plan to hire executives over the next six months, a big decrease from about 30% earlier this year.
Job interviews can be especially difficult for executives over 50 who have spent their careers moving up through the ranks, or being recruited for better jobs, and thus have had little or no practice at selling themselves while unemployed, say executive coaches Tucker Mays and Bob Sloane.
Sloane and Mays are the founders and principals of OptiMarket, a Darien, Conn., coaching firm that specializes in helping older executives find jobs quickly. They also wrote a book, Fired at 50: How to Overcome the Greatest Executive Job Search Challenge. They offer four tips on making sure your job hunt does not, in fact, last “forever” (even if it seems that way):
1. Preempt the age issue. “If you’re over 50, your age is the elephant in the room. Should you try to sweep it under the rug and hope it doesn’t come up, or wait until it does and address it then?” asks Sloane. The answer: Neither. “All effective salespeople know that the best way to counter an anticipated objection is to address it first.”
Instead of being defensive about your age, make it an asset. In cover letters, on your resume, and especially in interviews, “describe the abilities you’ve gained from experience that will give you an advantage over younger, less experienced candidates,” he says. One example: Problem solving. “At age 50-plus, there are probably few business challenges you haven’t faced,” says Mays.
2. Describe your flexible management style. “There is a perception that over-fifty job seekers are set in their ways and reluctant to change. So talk about how you modified your approach to fit different situations and varied corporate cultures,” Sloane suggests. ”You can also mention how you responded to unanticipated problems like a product recall, the loss of a major client, or a new government regulation.” The point is to show that you can roll with the punches as well as, or better than, any 35-year-old.
3. Cite past success at working for a younger boss. Recruiters and hiring managers often worry that executives over 50 will have problems reporting to someone younger, and young managers may wonder if your experience means you’re after their jobs. “During interviews, give examples where you enabled a young boss to succeed, grow, and advance their careers,” Mays advises.
“If you’re interviewing with a prospective boss who is younger than you, ask what his or her greatest challenges are, and tell how you believe your skills and experience can make their mission easier,” he adds. “You’ll be less likely to be perceived as a threat if you show that you respect their authority and are as committed to advancing their career as your own.”
4. Be flexible about pay. “You’ll have a significant advantage over younger candidates if you’re willing to accept a lower base salary up front, in exchange for greater performance-based bonus or equity,” says Sloane. “Companies prefer to hire executives who are willing to prove themselves first.”
Decide what minimum salary you need and then, when asked about your pay requirements, “mention that once you learn more about the job requirements and the company’s full compensation structure — including salary, bonus, profit-sharing, perks, and equity — you’ll be in a better position to answer.”
Among OptiMarket’s clients, Sloane says, “reducing initial salary requirements is often the key reason they get an offer. And in most cases, they end up making more money in the long run, because of deferred compensation they earn for great performance.”
Here’s hoping it works out that way for you.
Talkback: If you’re over 50 and job hunting, do you think your age is an obstacle, an advantage, or a bit of both? If you’ve recently found a new job, what do you think helped you clinch the offer? Leave a comment below.