Until this spring, a "tweet" to 50-year-old Robert Shotton was nothing more than a bird song. And Facebook? Just a place to connect with old friends.
But after losing his job in February as a plant manager in Hamilton, Ont., Mr. Shotton discovered social media is not just a place for online chatter - it's a crucial job-hunting tool.
"Though I set myself up on a lot of this stuff, I wasn't maybe using it to the full extent of how it could be used," he says.
A presentation in April at HAPPEN, an executive-networking organization, spurred him to get in social-networking shape. Web presence is crucial, presenter Greg Nisbet told the group: If you're not online, you might be overlooked - a frightening prospect to the 50-plus crowd who grew up with Bonanza, not Bebo (another social networking site).
Still, baby boomers are joining the ranks of social networkers faster than any other demographic, experts say.
And they're not just using it to gossip or trade weekend tales - they're building professional profiles and as a result, many are finding jobs. A January report from Forrester Research shows baby boomers are no Luddites - 60 per cent of Americans over age 50 regularly devour social media such as blogs, podcasts and online videos.
Though anxious to find work through any avenue, a huge quotient of job hunters over 50 are still wary of social media, says Mark Swartz, author of Get Wired, You're Hired!
"They're keen and they're also terrified," he says. Last week the Toronto career consultant told a York University audience they've got a competitive edge if they're on social-media networks now. If they're still not on them a year from now, they risk becoming obsolete.
"I had a bunch of people come up to me after and say this is where the terror struck them," he says. "They're behind with even getting on there and they realize how quickly this user-friendly technology changes. It just leaves them feeling like they're getting left behind."
While boomers know sites like LinkedIn are purely professional, they're often shocked to learn Twitter and Facebook can be useful on the job hunt, says Mr. Nisbet, author of a guide titled How to Promote Your Business on Facebook.
"Facebook has got this perception still, among that demographic, that it's a place where your kids and your grandkids waste their time online," he says. "Yes, it's got that element, but now it's got all these wonderful tools where you can set up your own persona, which can be really good for a job seeker."
Mr. Shotton, for one, created a Facebook ad last month targeting a company he wanted to work for. Though he didn't get a job, he made contact with a recruiting executive in the United States who offered to fast-track his résumé.
Peter Giblett, a 52-year-old information-technology leader, says it took a while to get the hang of sites like Twitter and LinkedIn, but they've proven useful in his job hunt. A California businessman he met through Twitter hired him for a consultancy gig, which he does via conference call from his Grimsby, Ont., home.
"There are communities out there, there always have been, but we didn't think of them as social networks," he says. "The next step in terms of social media is a whole heap different and you really do have to almost be hand held through it."
Mr. Giblett's actually been holding the hands of some skeptical peers who are interested but don't see the value of using the site frequently.
"I've found that some of the older people are more hesitant about how to use it," he says. "It's like 'Yeah, I'll do it once a week.' I've kind of found that's where I was at the beginning, but I've found in order to use [social networking]and use it properly, [you've got be on there]more than once a day."
One would be hard pressed to find a recruiter these days who doesn't rely on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter to match an employer with the right candidate says Sean McLean, partner with Conroy Ross Partners, a Calgary-based executive search firm. Being active on these social-networking sites can really give a boomer-aged job hunter an edge, he says.
"As a Gen Xer recruiting for an executive role, [if]I see that executive has effectively used LinkedIn, I ... [would assume]this person is well connected, they're current, they're actively networking, they're progressive," he says. "If someone [hasn't] I might assume that they've not adopted other tools - are they on e-mail? Are they able to use the Internet effectively?"
Though having a digital profile can be the key to the hidden job market, knowing how to navigate this sphere can make a boomer stand out from the crowd since many are still hesitant to log on, says Michelle Corsano, president of Burst Technology Marketing in Toronto.
"I think one of the key attributes that somebody of that age can use to differentiate themselves is to demonstrate a comfort zone for using those tools and actually using them," she says. "Any prospective employer nowadays, I think they pretty much are looking for those signals of knowledge and awareness."
But there's a fine line between proving a facility for tech and trying to come off as "cool," says Mr. Nisbet. A boomer should really try to learn the proper terminology and what the acronyms mean before wading into the networks, he adds.
Mr. Swartz advises job hunters over 50 against posting too much personal information or tacking up a photo, even on Facebook. Age discrimination continues to run rampant even in the virtual world, he warns. "Unless you've had plastic surgery and are 53 and look like Tom Cruise, don't do it. Don't give them a chance to rule you out."