A little story for you: a worker was let go after 17 years when the company she worked for was sold and the new owners headed in a ‘different direction.’ With an offer of severance that crossed the line between adequate and insulting, the former employee sought counsel from an employment lawyer who advised her to pursue litigation. Her chances for a win were excellent because, as the lawyer explained, the courts generally find in favor of workers whose age makes their chances of finding new employment – and certainly employment of equal value – unlikely, if not impossible.
Care to guess how old that worker was?
If you said 50 or older, you’d be wrong. If you said 45, you’d also be wrong. The woman was just 41. The lawyer’s words were (to paraphrase): “Once you hit 40, the courts recognize you’re less likely to be hired.”
the age versus experience conundrum
If you’re a new grad or even someone with, say, ten years of working experience, this information probably doesn’t faze you. You’re young, you say, and forty is a long way off. But if you’re in your 30’s, and especially if you’re currently negotiating the rapids of unemployment without a paddle, this story probably sent chills up your spine and left a lump of dread in your stomach.
After almost a year of serious job searching, the woman from the story above is still unemployed. She’s got an impressive list of current, transferable skills, tons of experience, is personable, a great communicator and an asset to any team. She’s continually acquiring new skills, networks like crazy, and is computer fluent and social media savvy. So why hasn’t she been scooped up by a smart organization that recognizes her value?
Because it seems, what hiring managers and prospective employers are looking for isn’t age and experience, but age over experience.
That’s a pretty broad-brush statement to be sure, and certain industries are more prone to being age-driven in their hiring than others. For example, the impression is all things social media are dominated by under-thirties, while under-forties dominate technology and consumer electronics sectors.
but wait, isn’t age discrimination illegal?
Indeed it is. However it’s challenging to prove and highly subversive, so much that an organization or hiring manager may not even be consciously aware it’s in play during the hiring cycle. And in many organizations, hiring managers and HR specialists are young enough that anyone over thirty looks old to them.
Certainly, young managers may be uncomfortable with the notion of managing people older than they are. For proof, I point to our movie theatre seemingly staffed by 14-year-olds who’ve never asked for proof of age to those attempting to thwart the industry by purchasing a senior’s ticket even though heaven knows they’re nowhere near senior qualification. Apparently, a few grey hairs and bags under your eyes and you’re in. Perception and point of view are everything.
how can you avoid organizations with age-discriminatory practices?
Language is one way to identify where an organization stands on hiring for skill and capability rather than age. It’s also something job seekers should be aware of if they anticipate moving through the hiring process. ‘Energetic’, ‘fast-paced’, ‘multi-tasking’ and ‘deadline driven’ could be code for young. If feedback on your interview includes ‘not a good fit for our company culture’ or ‘over-qualified’, you may have been found ‘not young.’
Older job seekers are being encouraged to consider consulting as an option to elusive permanent employment, where they can put to use the skills and experience gained over 25 years of work. Companies unwilling to consider hiring an older worker on staff may well have need of their consulting services. In other words, they may need you but that doesn’t mean they want you.
Much has to do with how an organization sees itself and how it wants to be seen by clients, competitors, the public and the talent pool. Hiring managers are often charged with filling a role with someone who can do the job at the lowest salary. That often means young or newly graduated workers eager to build their resume, gain work experience and pay off student loans.
A trend some organizations follow is to offer internships; this allows them to get the job done with no financial outlay (but for the occasional ‘honorarium’) and no long-term commitment or obligation. When one intern moves on to actual paid work, another is ready and willing to take his or her place. Some mature workers with years of experience may accept an internship (if they’re even considered) out of desperation or a desire to break into a sector or gain current experience but should only do so if they understand the odds of resulting permanent employment are remote at best.
Why are many organizations ageist? It could be because they consider older workers unskilled in or incapable of learning new technologies, or unable to adapt easily or quickly to the rapid pace of technological change. They might perceive older workers as more expensive than their younger colleagues in terms of salary and benefits, set in their ways, lacking in energy and focus or inclined to take more time off due to illness or family emergencies.
what can older job seekers do to keep their career on track?
- Keep abreast of new technologies. Learn, learn, learn. Get up to speed on new technologies as soon as they emerge. Let hiring managers know you’re constantly increasing your proficiency in the latest technologies. Highlight it on your resume. And talking about your resume, keep the most current roles and responsibilities (the last 10-15 years) the focus and omit the dates of your education/graduation.
- When you’re researching an organization before submitting a resume application, find out what you can about the company culture. If you get an interview, dress the part. Be true to who you are (don’t buzz cut your hair or pierce anything unnecessarily); dress comfortably and professionally, but don’t wear a suit and tie if employees are in t-shirts and jeans
- Let the hiring manager know you’re open to new challenges. That will tell them you’re in it for the long haul and not coasting to a stop. Match your energy and enthusiasm to younger applicants.
- Highlight your experience in areas of flexibility, collaboration, adaptability, leadership, mentorship, and change, systems and team management and development – intangibles every business needs but that only come with years on the job.
- It should go without saying that your LinkedIn profile should be current. Among recruiters using social tools, 94% said they use LinkedIn. Almost 80% of employers are using social networks to recruit, a sharp increase from the 56% who reported doing so five years ago. Use a professional photo that’s flattering and makes you look approachable, personable and energetic - and definitely one that's current! You don't want hiring managers to feel duped by a 20-year-old photo when they finally meet you in person. Your goal is not to hide your age; you’re just showing yourself in the best possible light - just like everyone else on LinkedIn! Being active and regularly posting comments and links to interesting articles is also a good way to show that you're active and engaged with what's happening in your industry and professional circles.
Looking for work can be a soul-sucking experience regardless of your age. But keep this in mind: maturity is a good thing. You’ve accumulated the experience, skills, and wisdom that only result from having spent many years on earth. You bring a depth and richness to the workplace your younger colleagues have yet to accumulate. And somewhere out there an employer is looking for someone with your persistence, loyalty, and acumen. Finally, remember that true confidence, the quality that comes from knowing your value and self-worth, is ageless.