The Older Job Candidate: Strategies to Combat Age Discrimination

Older man looking at laptop.Maybe you’ve already retired once and are now looking to reenter the workplace. Or perhaps you’re an older, still-working individual who has decided to pursue a different career direction, such as a promotion or new position. Either way, this decision will require you to apply and hopefully end up in a job interview, both activities which you have probably not undertaken in years. Spoiler alert: getting selected may be more difficult than expected, but not because you’re out of practice. You may, unfortunately, discover that age discrimination (ageism) is alive and well.

Discrimination against individuals forty years of age or older has been illegal since 1967. However, according to a report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), age discrimination is still widely and openly practiced. But if you have recently been a job applicant, you may already know that and personally experienced such discrimination. The EEOC report states, “Unfounded assumptions about age and ability continue to drive age discrimination in the workplace,” and “age discrimination remains a significant and costly problem for workers, their families, and our economy.”

Illegal or not, age discrimination is out there and may be an obstacle to landing the job you want. Unfortunately, the various age stereotypes some employers carry around in their heads have likely been there for years and are not easily erased. Whether done consciously or not, the interviewer may look closely at an older candidate for any clues, no matter how small, that appear consistent with those negative age-related biases and assumptions. The interviewer will then rationalize these clues as perceived evidence to justify not hiring the candidate.

At first, you might think that a logical employer would jump at the chance to grab an experienced and seasoned individual! After all, such a person is probably more mature, already trained, made their learning mistakes elsewhere, and can hit the ground running. But then again, since when has discrimination—of any type—been logical?  

Fact: ageism exists, and sadly, one cannot eradicate illegal discrimination from the world in the short term. Given that, what practical steps can an older applicant take to combat age discrimination during the job search and interview process? The short answer: take reasonable steps to de-emphasize your age and don’t feed the stereotype. Especially during the job interview, any negative age-related assumptions held by an interviewer may suddenly become an impediment if clues reinforcing the validity of those beliefs are observed. Therefore, the challenge is to not provide any such perceived clues, at least to the extent possible.

During the Application Process

When applying for positions, the goal is to de-emphasize your age to the extent possible. You don’t want an employer to think, “I can tell just by looking at this applicant’s resume that they are obviously an older individual.” The objective at this point is to secure an interview. To help achieve this, avoid having your application materials provide clues that might trigger age-related biases.

Admittedly, with online applications and computerized ATS (Applicant Tracking Systems), this task may be more difficult than ever. Some online application systems have various date-related data fields designated as “required,” and an applicant cannot continue without entering a date. Enter a date if you must, but do not falsify anything. Falsifying information on a job application can be grounds for immediate dismissal later. These systems also scan attached resume files, automatically retrieving dates and searching for keywords and phrases. To help avoid having these electronic gatekeepers reveal your age, here are a few suggestions.

De-emphasize age on your resume by removing graduation dates for high school, college, special training, trade apprenticeships, etc. While reading that your degree is in exactly the right major might impress the employer, the fact that you received it 30 years ago could have the opposite effect.

Your work history should only include relatively recent dates of employment. For example, suppose you started at the XYZ Company 20 years ago. If you most recently served in two or three different capacities (different titles, positions, etc.), maybe over the last 10 years or so, list just those on your resume. The work you did 20 years ago is probably no longer relevant or of interest to the employer.

Here’s another potential red flag to an age-adverse employer. If you’ve had the same old email address for years, is it associated with an email provider that was popular years ago, but now, not so much? If so, set up an email address using a newer, popular provider such as Gmail (free) and use it exclusively for your job search communications.

During the Job Interview

Great! You made it past the ATS, and your resume is appealing enough to be invited to an interview! Whether in an online or face-to-face interview, clues about your age will now be visibly apparent.

Let’s look at just a few of the typical, negative, age-related stereotypes an employer might harbor and see what practical actions an applicant can take to help mitigate them during a job interview. Most of these suggestions involve comments that you “work into the conversation” at an appropriate time, leaving subtle clues designed to put typical biases to rest. Of course, not all of these stereotypical concerns may apply to every situation or applicant, and your skill at applying the solutions will help determine the outcome.

Stereotypical concern: Older individuals are probably not very tech-savvy or up-to-date.

 If you are technically proficient with computers, mobile devices, and popular or specialized software/applications, talk about it, mentioning specifics. However, avoid discussing old, obsolete software you used years ago; it isn’t relevant and feeds the stereotype. The employer wants to know if you’re proficient and comfortable with current technology. Identify tech-related experiences that would be meaningful to this employer. For example, if true, mention how you have designed complex spreadsheets, developed or managed a database, used specialized software applicable to your field, or performed other work involving computers and technology. Have you prepared or edited audio, video, or PowerPoint presentations? Developed a website (personal or business) or managed a company’s social media site?

Stereotypical concern: Older candidates are probably not familiar with social media, online meetings, text messaging, etc., and those are important tools in our business.

If you discuss applications used for online meetings, etc., do so confidently, showing the interviewer that your use of these is routine. Did you perhaps comfortably use Zoom or other conferencing software during the pandemic to communicate on the job or with your family and friends? If so, mention it.

Outside of the interview itself, the subjects of social media and other ways you appear online are a bit tricky and require a balance. More and more employers look at job applicants’ social media to gain insight into the “real person.” If you have no social media or other online presence at all, that will either feed the stereotype or, worse yet, raise suspicion that you have something to hide. On the other hand, if you do regularly use popular social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, etc., these sites may reveal information you might not want an employer to know (your recent birthday, people asking how your surgery went, etc.). During a job search, consider modifying your privacy settings so an employer can see that you have an online presence, but not necessarily see everything in detail.

If you have not already done so, set up a LinkedIn account (the free version is adequate). Not only does this give you a professional look, but you can control the content. Again, just be sure you do not include dates or other content that might bring attention to your age.

Stereotypical concern: We have a very diverse workforce here, one that includes a lot of young supervisors and managers. Could this older person work effectively and cooperatively for someone much younger? 

During the interview, mention that throughout your career, you have worked closely with and for individuals of various ages and different ethnic backgrounds. Perhaps a former supervisor who is younger will agree to serve as one of your professional references.

Stereotypical concern: An older worker may not be as sharp and alert as a younger one. 

Here are two ways to help dispel this stereotype. During the job interview, be sure to maintain good eye contact with the interviewers when you answer or ask questions. Also, in advance, practice aloud answering the types of questions that you expect may be asked. Similarly, rehearse aloud the questions you intend to ask the interviewers. Doing so will help you readily answer and ask questions without pausing and searching for words. These tactics will help convey a perception of quickness, sharpness, and alertness.

Stereotypical concern: Is this candidate physically fit enough to do the job and be dependable? Older people often have many health problems. I wonder if this person will frequently call off sick.

If you are actually quite physically fit, perhaps you could work something into the conversation that reinforces this fact. Perhaps you recently ran a 10K race, ski, hike, or regularly participate in some other physically demanding hobby. Regarding dependability, did you win any perfect attendance awards at your last job? If so, mention it.

However, what if you embark on a job search and are not necessarily in the best physical condition? In this case, start early in the process to see if there are any realistic steps you can take to enhance your health or appearance. Maybe lose some weight? Exercise more? After all, you should be doing those things anyway, right? If you are out of shape, huffing and puffing while walking to the interview room will only feed the stereotype.

Stereotypical concern: Older workers are probably set in their ways and do not readily adapt to change.

When and if appropriate, casually mention that throughout your career, you have experienced many changes and always readily adapted as needed. Such changes may be related to work techniques, the use of new equipment or technology, policies and procedures that may change frequently, major software or computer system upgrades, new laws, applying revised technical standards, etc. Let the interviewer see that you recognize change as just part of the job and you are ready to adapt as needed.

Forewarned is Forearmed

Fortunately, not every employer discriminates against older applicants. Some actually recognize the value of experienced talent. Still, you need to be aware that ageism is out there, and you should be prepared to combat it.

While no techniques for overcoming age discrimination are fool-proof, taking reasonable measures can make the difference between getting a job offer and not. Once in the interview, the ball is in your court. If you can allay the interviewer’s concerns, your age and the experience can be viewed as they should be: valuable assets to their organization.

Have you been a victim of age discrimination? Feel free to leave a comment and share your experience!

Also, be sure to check out my book The 6 Readiness Factors for Planning, Changing, or Advancing Your Career, available from Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

Featured image courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio.


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