Special Report: Ageism in the Job Market

Ageism in the Job Market

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Are we our own worst enemies? Part 1 of a series on ageism in the workplace.

FIND A JOB by Eilene Zimmerman on

“We’re looking for someone hungrier.”

“The right candidate is high energy.”

If you’re over 50 and job-hunting, chances are you’ve heard phrases like these. Or maybe you’ve been told you’re overqualified or too senior. These are code words for “too old” and they pepper the language of hiring managers nationwide. Jacquelyn James, director of research at the Sloan Center for Aging & Work at Boston College says when people are asked on surveys to rate others on the basis of age and corresponding characteristics, older people are associated with negative traits that include a lack of interest in growing and developing, inflexibility in thinking and an unwillingness to learn and adapt to new technology. “The data about those kinds of traits are very mixed and much of it is perception,” she says. And some weren’t negative. “Older people are seen as having a good work ethic, as working harder and being more comfortable with authority.”

Add to such negative stereotypes the mistaken perception that people working into their 60s and early 70s are taking jobs from younger workers. Although arecent Pew study soundly debunked that, as does Kevin Cahill, a research economist at the Sloan Center, the belief is pervasive. Cahill says although people are retiring later, the idea that older workers need to move out of the way for younger workers is a misperception. “The argument breaks down pretty rapidly if you look beyond individual firms and over time,” he says.

See also: Top LinkedIn Tips for Job Seekers

But prejudice of any type, of course, isn’t based on fact, and much of the age bias we see in hiring is unconscious, says Jacquelyn James. That’s due, at least in part, to the fact that ageism is the least studied or examined form of discrimination. A recent paper on ageism from psychologist Susan Fiske and Michael North at Princeton University, called ageism “the most socially condoned” form of prejudice. And it has intensified. By the time people reach their mid-60s, two out of three have retired, either voluntarily or because they weren’t able to keep or find a job, according to research from Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. By age 75, nine out of ten are out of the workforce.

Among the long-term unemployed, the situation is most severe for those over 55, who face the longest period of unemployment. Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, says although the number fluctuates, at least two million people over age 55 have been out of work more than six months and at least half of those for more than a year.

See also: How Can I Compete With People Younger Than My Kids?

Because ageism is often unconscious it’s tough to disarm. With any bias, the key to mitigation is awareness, says James. Fact is, people generally don’t think of themselves as biased. In order to fight the stereotypes—say, that older workers don’t embrace new technology—James advises job candidates be explicit with interviewers that they are eager to learn, and have history of learning and embracing new technology.

With the right strategies, job seekers can combat age-related stereotypes rather than buying into them, says James, and take steps to adapt to the changing culture of the workplace.

Speak the Same Language

“People over 50 grew up talking about their accomplishments, about what they did and how well they did it,” says Gail Palubiak, owner of Interview Academy in Denver, a job search and interview consulting firm that specializes in over-50 job seekers. “But companies today speak the language of contribution. And this is critical—because you are likely interviewing with someone who isn’t the same generation. So talk about how you served a company, not how great you are.”

Palubiak says a candidate who gets an interview is close to getting the job; at that juncture, it’s primarily language that becomes the barrier—not age. “Rather than saying, ‘I was the number one sales rep in my division,’ say ‘The company encountered serious competitive challenges in my division. Through my actions, ultimately the company was able to…’ and then show the contribution you made.”

It may also help to simply swim in the same water as those under 40. On Facebook, impressions of older people among those in their 20s are very negative, according to a new study, “Facebook as a Site for Negative Age Stereotypes,” authored by Becca Levy, director of the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Yale School of Public Health, as well as researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, Hunter College and the Hopkins School. Levy’s research, which was published online in the journal The Gerentologist, found negative stereotypes of older people were rampant. “One of the conclusions we had from the research was that social networking could be a way to break down intergenerational barriers and a great resource for older adults,” she says, making connections that could help with their job search and illustrating publicly that they are comfortable with technology younger people use.

Present Well, in Real Life, on the Phone and Virtually

Nicole Williams, LinkedIn’s career expert, says midlife job seekers often think they need to look younger, when what they really need is to look relevant. “Get your hair cut so the style is modern, wear something that makes you feel confident. You want to convey vibrancy, passion and energy,” she says. That goes for the photo on your LinkedIn profile too.

See also: Capitalize on Your Eclectic Experience

Companies often do a screening interview by phone before deciding to meet a candidate. Stand up and use a headset during that call, suggests Dana Manciagli, a career consultant and author of Cut the Crap, Get a Job. Manciagli says when you stand up, you dial up your voice and energy level. On the phone, age bias occurs when a candidate sounds feeble. “Even if it’s a 22-year-old screening you, it’s an interview,” she says. “Stand up, gesture with your arms and be energetic.”

Show a Solution

Remember that behind every job description lies a problem. As a candidate your questions should come early—rather than at the end of the interview as is traditional—to unearth the problems a company is trying to overcome. “Too often older candidates are preoccupied with trying to sell themselves, rather than trying to understand the issues facing the company,” says Palubiak. By offering ways you can contribute, you become a problem solver, she says, and that’s when age doesn’t matter.

Another strategy older job candidates often stress their expertise in a variety of areas. “It’s far better to stick to what your specialization really is,” says Palubiak. “It’s counter-intuitive, but trying to be everything to everybody dilutes your value in the market.”

Never Sell Yourself Short

Williams says midlife job seekers on LinkedIn often under-chronicle their experience, playing it down to avoid being dismissed as overqualified or too old. “A lot of employers have young employees and need older workers for their experience and ability to mentor, so don’t think there aren’t opportunities,” she says. “There’s ageism, yes, but don’t dig into that self-fulfilling prophecy that it means there’s nothing out there. As a 50-plus, promote your experience, your great organizational and leadership skills, and that you have a breadth of experience in your industry that will benefit a company.”

See also: 3 Key Questions Job Seekers Forget

She also suggests addressing the elephant in the virtual room—that you are a midlife worker—rather than dancing around it, by doctoring your photo and leaving dates and experience off your profile. Williams suggests stating in the summary section that in addition to your long history in the industry you have “an abundance of energy you want to share,” she says. “Make it clear you want to spend the rest of your career contributing to a company you feel passionate about.”

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