The baby boomer generation, those born from 1946 through 1964, make up about 25 percent of the workforce. That is a significant portion in the labor market. Yet, boomers, and even successive generations, suffer a common, but not unfounded fear of age discrimination.
Many hiring professionals acknowledge that age discrimination is not a myth. In fact, 4 in 10 hiring managers who participated in a recent ResumeBuilder survey admitted to age bias while reviewing applicants’ résumés. Meanwhile, in three surveys of older workers conducted by AARP since 2002, roughly two-thirds of respondents reported experiencing or seeing such discrimination. However, most employers can’t afford to lose 25 percent of their workforce. So why do some employers engage in a practice that may alienate such a large group?
It’s not that employers and hiring managers inherently dislike people over a certain age. A 2021 research paper from the Stanford Graduate School of Business showed that employers’ concerns lay in older workers’ abilities to do the job and fit into a team or culture. Even though those are the concerns, it does NOT mean their concerns are accurate. There is no evidence that mature workers are less innovative. In analyzing the scientific evidence, Harvard Business Review found that “knowledge and expertise – the main predictors of job performance – keep increasing even beyond the age of 80.” Older employees bring value and competence to the workforce, particularly in the areas of cognitive diversity, where people working together as a cohesive unit comprised of different ages and experiences maximize team output. Despite these reassurances, age bias can still be a concern in the hiring process.
So, what can you do to alleviate those concerns during the job-hunting process and in the workplace? It starts with understanding what those employers’ concerns are so you can counter them strategically and effectively.
But First, a Bit of Background
It is important to understand a background on age discrimination at work and how real it is. Here are some basic facts to keep in mind:
- According to a global study by the career training nonprofit Generation, 63 percent of unemployed people aged 45 or older have been out of work for longer than one year vs. 36 percent of job seekers ages 18-24 and 52 percent of job seekers ages 35 to 44.
- The average job search for all workers takes approximately 17.5 weeks, compared with an average of 20.9 weeks for ages 55 to 64, according to an AARP Public Policy Institute analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data. (I share this because it is important to understand that you may not be doing anything wrong – don’t give up.)
- Age discrimination cuts across all racial and gender lines. Unfortunately, women and minorities report experiencing age discrimination at greater rates than white males, according to a study by Columbia professor Lee Goldman
- Only 8 percent of companies include age as a diversity strategy in the hiring process, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). And, according to the same aforementioned 2021 Stanford Graduate School of Business study, things aren’t changing soon, stating “ageism seems to be the only condonable prejudice” because employers either understand that age discrimination exists but don’t feel the need to address it, or they do not recognize it at all. (So if it isn’t changing soon, countering it lies with you because you are your best advocate.)
- Notably, SHRM also found that when hiring managers choose candidates 45 and over, 87 percent of those hired perform are as good as or better than younger employees.
Strategies to Combat Ageism in the Job Market
So, what are you combatting? Myths, stereotypes, partial truths – whatever the concerns are – with forethought, you can overcome them.
There are six concerns that are frequently identified in relation to older job seekers, and we will delve into general strategies that address them. Those six concerns focus on energy level, your health’s impact on the company’s bottom line, perceived technological incompetence, being set in your ways, forgetfulness and a feeling that you will overshadow your boss.
1. Enthusiasm and Energy
One stereotype addresses that mature workers lack the enthusiasm and are too tired to be productive. Though there is NO evidence that older workers are less productive, it is important to manage perceptions. These things can help during the job search and when working in the role:
- Your work, resume, LinkedIn profile, cover letters and interviews should display energy and enthusiasm. This would include indicating your passion and current knowledge of the field, the company and modern technology. Exclude out-of-date programs, technology or other information that appears antiquated.
- It is probably better to not have a LinkedIn profile than to have a lackluster one. Your LinkedIn profile should have an engaging headline, a picture and a strong summary in the “About” section. I recommend a headline rather than a job title on your profile page – a job title is static, but a headline is dynamic and engaging. Career development is available for TESU students and alumni to book a career coach that can evaluate and recommend changes to your LinkedIn profile.
Another stereotype employers may believe is that older workers could be less reliable due to medical issues. In theory, these workers would then increase health insurance costs for the organization. But there are ways to address this concern head on.
- During interviews and conversations, infuse examples of the steps you take to stay healthy. For example, bringing up healthy practices like the type of workout you adopt. Something like, “While doing my daily swim, I was thinking about . . .” The key is to make it feel natural and organic.
- If you have health issues that you feel you need to share with the employer, wait until you are at the offer stage. This allows the employer to develop buy-in to you so they will hopefully decide you are more important than your health condition. AND, it can expose employer bias if they retract an offer. However, if, in an interview, they describe a duty and ask if you will be able to do it – if you know you are not able to complete the tasks, do not lie. Lying is never a good approach in the workplace regardless of the situation.
Younger workers have used technology their entire lives; a common myth is that older workers may struggle to keep up with new technologies vital to the workplace. Try the following to demonstrate your technological competence.
- If your skills are not up to date, seek training or certification in required programs. Don’t assume your older skills will show that you are trainable.
- Think of examples of when you had to integrate new technology into your work, especially if you adapted quickly. Include them in examples during your interview. Likewise, if you were the person that others came to for questions regarding certain technology, include that in discussions.
- Make sure your email server is one that is considered current. Few people under age 45 use Hotmail, Juno or AOL. Similarly, don’t discuss out-of-date social media networks, like MySpace, Yik Yak, Vine or Google Wave/Google Buzz/Google Plus.
- Show a comfort level with technology by responding to emails quickly and demonstrating comfort with calendaring and online conferencing systems. If you are not confident in online conferencing and have an upcoming online interview, practice with the technology.
Perceived lack of flexibility is another misconception of older workers. Once again, demonstrate that you are flexible in the workplace.
- Don’t fall into the trap of overconfidence. Confidence can be inspiring; overconfidence can be associated with a closed mind and stubbornness. Let others express their ideas. When possible, help others explore their ideas – don’t be the naysayer.
- Include examples of how you have given new ideas a chance – even if you have an established method that would work, let others try their ideas.
Forgetfulness is a stereotype and a truth. As we age, cognitive decline is a reality. However, employers concerned that older workers have memory issues that will negatively impact their work are wrong. Remember when I said knowledge and expertise continue to grow beyond the age of 80? Demonstrate that memory loss is not a factor for you with these methods.
- Develop measures to overcome forgetfulness. Without identifying them as measures to combat forgetfulness, incorporate those strategies into questions like, “How do you organize yourself?” or “How do you manage your time?” Make lists or establish electronic reminders. Recognize that simple measures you took in the past may not be enough, institute new or additional measures.
- Practice interview questions and responses. This helps you to lock in language and examples in your brain that you may want to use in the interview.
6. Feelings of Being Overshadowed
Another discriminatory myth is that potential supervisors may fear your experience is greater than theirs, which may result in them feeling overshadowed and intimidated, possibly even threatened. To alleviate these feelings, try these tactics.
- If you decided to consider team roles rather than team leader roles – whether by circumstance (cannot find team leader roles), due to change in careers or because you have decided to take on less responsibility -- be sure to communicate your desire for this level of work, even if not asked.
- When you offer ideas, don’t preface your ideas with your credentials. Focus on how your ideas are relevant now. And, if your supervisor or interviewer chooses an option you would not have, be supportive of their decision. Discuss how you can adapt to that choice. Keep in mind younger workers sometimes feel they are facing reverse age discrimination – that people won’t hear their ideas due to their age. Everyone’s ideas have value.
Age discrimination is unfair, and, like other forms of discrimination, it puts an unfair burden on those impacted. Even if an employer doesn’t hold any of these concerns, they may have others when it comes to older workers. However, don’t get mired down in anger or frustration. This can leave you jobless or severely underemployed. Be proactive by adopting strategies to counter ageism. My suggestions are intended to help you avoid ageism while not creating defensiveness in you as a candidate or worker. Persist and you will find the right environment.
In my virtual workshops, I discuss several other approaches and recommendations to combat ageism in the job search, like upskilling, handling salary negotiations, research and preparation tactics, to name a few. If you are looking to refresh your resume, my resume writing workshops and resume reviews can help. Visit the Career Development website to find one of these workshops. TESU students can schedule an appointment to leverage our services and professional insights.
Written by Ceceilia "Ceil" O'Callaghan