One of the things I was most surprised by when I got into the jobs business over a decade ago was the prevalence and practice of age discrimination in hiring right here in the USA.
Oh, sure… we’re not like some overseas markets where job ads explicitly demand youth, or a particular gender, or beauty(!), in the applicant, but there it is…
The blank look on your interviewer’s face when you talk about growing up in the 60s or 70s. The skepticism with which your Snapchat skills are regarded. The cultural references that pass silently like two Teslas in the night…
Well, at least the younger generation seems to giggle at your references to “Gunga-galunga”.
Most of the time.
All of it adds up to a pernicious undercutting of your ability to get hired and get ahead. We have to admit the ugly truth that age discrimination exists — there’s no doubt about it.
And there’s no silver bullet for those facing it. If you’re in the job market and over the age of 52, you will almost certainly face stereotypes and negative attitudes regarding your desirability because of your age. And in some cities, in some markets, that negative environment impacts candidates as young as 40 years of age.
While there’s nothing you can do to stop it, I have, over the years, observed which candidates and applicants have succeeded despite their age and which have failed because of it.
If I had to summarize, I’d say it appears to me that age discrimination is mindset discrimination first and foremost. And you’ll need to review how you are presenting your mindset — your attitude — to your future employer.
Every hiring manager is asking herself, every HR person is asking himself, these questions about you and every other candidate they’re interviewing…
Will this candidate:
- Be able to excel in this role?
- Be able to learn and adjust as the role evolves?
- Be able to master the tools and technologies involved today and tomorrow?
- Get along well with others on the team?
- Take direction and feedback?
And it’s important for you to realize that youth is the symptom, not the cause, of age discrimination.
What I mean by that is that hiring managers are hiring for open-mindedness, flexibility, and a sociability with others. On average, there’s a perception on the part of hiring managers, whether right or wrong, that those attributes are more frequently found in the young, as opposed to the experienced.
And it’s worthwhile to review why these attributes have so much value in the business world today.
As the world changes, businesses change even more rapidly. Companies sometimes need to jump on new trends before they pan out, or hedge their bets, or make sure they’re well-prepared for most contingencies. And that means there’s always plenty of “new” to keep up with.
So a workforce that is flexible, open-minded and interested in learning is far better than a workforce that is determined to keep doing it the old way.
“The old way works fine” might be OK for you around the home, but in business, it has proven to be an enormous destroyer of value. Take a look at the hard times that old famous companies have fallen upon. Heck, even some of the newer tech companies that were darlings within the last decade have had difficulties mastering new environments.
So expecting your future employer to be pleased with an “old ways are tried and true” mindset won’t serve you well in your job search.
So it is not necessarily youth itself that companies are hiring for, rather, it is those attributes that have proven effective in today’s business environment.
The cause of age discrimination is the perception around older professionals’ adaptability, curiosity, and team spirit; youth is merely a symptom.
Since you can’t change your age, your goal is to address the underlying root causes of age discrimination — your goal is not to appear or act age-inappropriate — it is to present yourself, effectively, as a constructive, resourceful, “coachable”, team player.
When confronting misperceptions in your job search, it is always better to “show” than to “tell”:
- Describe situations in which you adapted new technologies to the problem at hand. It is helpful if these examples aren’t from the seventies, but rather represent transitions that your interviewer herself went through.
- Recount how you were able to help younger (and older) staffers get to a solution that was stumping all. Detail the challenges you faced and what tactics you used to overcome them.
- Relate your experiences with receiving and using feedback constructively. Discuss how you used the situation to update your behavior and outlook. Share the process you went through to find where you could perform better and the steps you took to achieve an improvement. Ideally, quantify that improvement.
- Illustrate with specific stories your interest in, and passion for, the work that you do. Why does it drive you? What excites you about your work? Your younger competition does this out of habit — because they can’t talk about decades of success in the business — so you need to make sure you put yourself on a fair footing.
As you can see, the important thing is that rather than telling the hiring manager that you’re open-minded, curious, flexible, adaptable to new circumstances, and sociable enough for the role, show him that you are.
And a final word to remake the point about youth being a symptom and not a cause of age discrimination.
On occasion, one finds older candidates that mistake having an open mindset with mimicking a twenty-year-old’s mindset.
There is a difference.
Arriving at a job interview replete with the names of the latest bands, dropping age-inappropriate lingo into your answers, and wearing clothes that reveal too much about your desperation by trying too hard, all have the opposite effect of what you’d hope for.
Interactions like these reconfirm your interviewer’s fears that you’ll be obtuse, unsavvy, and a management challenge on the job.
No, your best tactics are to communicate, verbally and nonverbally, that you are adept at keeping up with the times, and, even more importantly, interested in doing so. And the best way for you to do that is to show them precisely those behaviors and traits for which they are interviewing.