Age discrimination: solutions for your job search

In 2021, companies need to hire flexible employees. You worry that ‘flexible’ is just a code word for ‘younger and cheaper,’ so what should you do about it?

The age discrimination problem starts with our fast-paced world, and misperceptions about older professionals’ ability to keep up. The modern workplace moves at an astounding speed. This past decade alone has seen many industries rise and fall in the space of a few short years. The tempo is extremely challenging.

As a result, companies want to hire professionals who can roll with the punches. People who are able to adapt rapidly to changing circumstances. 

They want people who can change their game as quickly as the world around them changes.

And that means they’re looking to hire professionals who are open-minded, coachable, curious and collaborative, in addition to being competent and capable. Bosses have found that employees with these characteristics are more likely to help the company thrive, despite the circumstances, come what may.

That sounds promising and somewhat obvious – bosses want to hire multi-tool players – but it is also the reason we experience age disrimination in this country.

And that’s because the root cause of age discrimination is the fear that candidates over 50 won’t be open-minded, coachable, curious or collaborative. Bosses worry that older professionals won’t be easy to manage, easy to work with, easy to adapt to changes, or easy to coach to high performance. That’s really the underlying concern / phobia / fear that drives hiring managers and recruiters to discriminate against older workers.

It’s unfair, it’s illegal, and it’s not nice, but for anybody looking for a new job after 50, it’s part of the job search experience. No doubt.

So what are the best steps to address age discrimination and the fears of hiring mangers and future employers?

Well, the best steps are to provide abundant evidence, examples, and anecdotes that demonstrate your professional open-mindedness, curiosity, coachability and collaboration.

Here’s how. 

In describing your work experiences, highlight and emphasize specific episodes in which you displayed these characteristics. It’s really much, much better if those episodes happened in the past five years.  Dredging up some anecdote from the dawn of your career in the last century is not persuasive when you’re interviewing today.

Coachable – share a concrete example of when you changed based on negative feedback. Share how you perceived the situation and what your existing course of action was.  Then share that someone provided you with advice about how to do it better, and detail precisely how that caused you to alter your behavior going forward, leading to a better result.

Bonus points if the person giving you the advice was younger, or much, much younger, than you.

Now, the example you cite should be in an area not stereotypically ‘new generation’, such as emoji use, signing on to Discord, or making your first TikTok video.  It’s much better if the example is from the core of your work experience and expertise.

While you may be concerned it will show your vulnerability as an expert in your field, it will actually show your strength in your confidence to learn new things on the job.  And that’s what employers seek today.

Open-mindedness – share a story about a time when there were different ways of doing things.  You may have preferred Plan A and your colleague preferred Plan B. Walk through how the decision did not go your way, but you were able to commit to Plan B, and see it through to its success.

‘Disagree, and commit’ is the term of art for it these days, and it helps to show your openness to alternative solutions, and your agreeableness in going along with the team’s decision.

Curiosity – detail a new technology you’ve picked up in the past five years. Talk about the prior solutions in your field (which an, ahem, older professional would stereotypically be expected to prefer) and the steps you went through to enthusiastically adapt to the new technology.

It’s much better if it’s a technology that your (younger) audience has heard of – don’t talk about switching away from 8-track tapes or mainframe computers. And it’s better if you’re now an expert, or at the very least an advanced practitioner in this technology, so that when you’re quizzed, you really and truly know your stuff.

The technologies, business models, and communications tools at work are going to change every five years, pretty much every five years for the rest of your career.  Show your interviewers that you’re prepared and energized for these ever-newer worlds.

Collaboration – recount a situation in which you and the team, (again, ideally, a team of younger peers) had to collaborate on something, and you brought it to success. Share specific examples of when your expertise was helpful to the team’s output and success.  And other examples of when someone else’s expertise persuaded you that they were right, and you followed their advice.

Being able to talk persuasively about cases in which you didn’t have to be right for the team to be successful, helps ease an employer’s worries about your teamwork and ability to get along with your younger peers.

Overall, combatting age discrimination is about refuting the perception that your on-the-job performance will be more difficult to manage. There’s a feeling that employees over 50 won’t be amenable to the management style and work pace of the modern workplace.  In tech circles, this happens as young as 40 or 35!

So the real question is how do you address those concerns head-on in the interview process – unspoken or unstated as they may be?

Demonstrate that you’re open, coachable, curious, and collaborative.  It’s the most effective tool in your arsenal for overcoming these unfounded concerns.

And a final bit of advice, based on a problem I’ve heard from members repeatedly – how should you handle the “first impression” conundrum?

That is, when you log onto Zoom, or walk into the room, and the interviewer, who is your daughter’s age, doesn’t manage to hide her shock at your age, silver mane, and general experienced-ness.  And further, it becomes clear that she’s not really considering hiring you as a result. Try this intervention:

“Look, before we end this interview, let me just tell you in thirty seconds what I’ve learned in my career, and then you can tell me if you want to continue with our conversation. Sound fair?

(Wait for their agreement)

Here’s what I’ve learned how to do in my somewhat longer career:

I’ve learned how to learn new technologies and new business models, and make them work for today.

I’ve learned how to work with all generations – I started off working with much older folks from the ‘Greatest Generation’ and remember the pluses and minuses of that experience.  As a result, I know that age and wisdom don’t always go together.

Now, I’ve been working with Millennials and Gen Zs and I’ve learned to be effective regardless of age, by being an open-minded, collaborative, curious, coachable colleague.

I’ve learned how to learn from younger peers, colleagues and bosses – the exciting thing about today is how everybody can make a contribution.

And I’ve learned how to use my age and experience to help teams reach consensus – when the oldest person in the room agrees to give up their viewpoint to follow the team’s decisions, it makes it easier for everybody else to sign up as well.

I’ve learned how to make successes in all different environments, with all different colleagues from all different walks of life, in all different business cycles and situations.  

Now if you think that kind of experience might be helpful to you and your team, let’s definitely continue this interview.  If not, no worries, I’m happy to give back your time.”

Often, your interviewer won’t even consciously realize that they are displaying their unease at your older age. By stating it out loud, turning it into a positive, and presenting the reasons why it’s a professional advantage for you and for them, you make it easier for the interviewer to feel at ease, comfortable and confident that you could be a successful candidate for the role.

With this long note on a persistent problem for the last Monday of August, Readers, I wish you a great end of summer!