With college-educated unemployment still at a post-WWII high of 6.7%, and the world working remotely, let’s talk about that other affliction that might be holding you back: age discrimination.
One of the things I was most surprised by when I got into the careers business two decades ago was the prevalence of age discrimination right here in the US of A.
The blank look on your interviewer’s face when you talk about growing up in the 70s or 80s. Their skepticism about whether you’ve ever really understood TikTok. The cultural references that pass silently like two Teslas in the night…
It makes it difficult for you to get hired and get ahead, and it’s an ugly truth: age discrimination exists.
There’s no silver bullet for those facing the job market with silver hair. If you’ve been thrown into the job search over the age of 52, you will almost certainly face stereotypes and negative attitudes because of your age. And in some fields, that negative environment impacts candidates as young as 40 years of age.
While there’s nothing you can do to stop age discrimination, I’ve observed over the decades which professionals have succeeded despite their age and which have failed because of it.
It seems to me, most importantly for those trying to combat it, that age discrimination is mindset discrimination . You’ll need to review how you are presenting your mindset — your attitude — to your future employer, to get ahead.
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 lack of youth is a symptom, not the cause, of age discrimination.
Hiring managers are hiring for open-mindedness, flexibility, and 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.
The year 2020 shows us why these attributes have so much value in the business world today. We’ve changed everything about how we work together in the space of a few, short months. Some business lines are destroyed, some are merely damaged, others are actually thriving during the pandemic.
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, because there is no more old way.
Therefore, a job candidate who wants to stick with “the old ways that are tried and true” is at a disadvantage. That mindset has proven to be an enormous destroyer of value.
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; lack of youth is merely the symptom.
Since you can’t change your age, your goal is to address the underlying root causes of age discrimination. You want to present yourself as a constructive, resourceful, “coachable”, team player. Your goal is explicitly not to act or appear in an age-inappropriate way.
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.
-Master the video conferencing apps you’ll use in remote interviews. Zoom, Meet, Teams, Skype or others. And I mean really master them. Nothing will make you look more out of touch than fumbling around with your laptop for five minutes at the beginning of an interview. Extra points if you’re able to teach your interviewer one small trick.
– Look great on camera. I covered this at length last week, and so many of you wrote in to say thanks, and to mention they wished their colleagues took this advice. Looking good on your video calls is the new dress code. Learn it.
– 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.
Now, I don’t want to be Pollyanna-ish and say that with these tips you’ll be able to overcome age discimination. (By the way, maybe references like Pollyanna, a 1960 movie, are outdated? Maybe I should’ve used “Olaf” from Frozen… let me try again…)
Now I don’t want to be as over-optimistic as Olaf, and say you’ll be able to magically sweep away age discrimination with these tips. There are some things about age discrimination that you can’t control — the public availability of information about you on the internet, including your age; and the preference of some management teams to “control healthcare costs,” by silently, and illegally, not hiring anyone over 40.
These are real evils in the world, and you’ll be lucky if you manage to avoid them entirely.
Before I close, when I’ve written about age discrimination in the past, many of you have written in with your own experiences and advice, and I thought I’d share a set of tips from “Eric,” who wrote in to say:
“It helps also:
1. Don’t mention anything about your children (especially when they are close in age to your interviewer).
2. Don’t mention anything about your grandchildren!
3. Don’t mention how long you are married.
4. Don’t list anything on your resume that is more than 15 years old.
5. Consider dying your hair if you have a lot of gray.
6. Use your glasses for reading only.
Sad but true……as soon as I did the above….I got further into the process. At that point, you better be up on the ‘now’ in the industry! New techniques, the latest equipment, etc!
It’s very hostile out there! Wear a tough skin!
Thank you for sharing that helpful advice, Eric!
And a final word to remake the point about lack of 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.
Showing up to your Zoom 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 hoped 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.
Good luck, Readers!, and keep in mind Olaf’s lines: “I’ll have all the answers when I’m older!”