When you’re young, 40 seems like a lifetime away. As many of us can attest, however, this pivotal milestone arrives quickly — and when it does, you’ll be shocked to suddenly realize you’ve reached an age when the government feels it needs to protect you by law from employment discrimination.
Alas, despite legal protections, there’s little doubt that age bias occurs in the job market and has an impact on the employment fortunes of older workers. Some argue that it’s an extremely common, black-and-white phenomenon. Others maintain that it’s a more complex issue, hard to distinguish from cases where candidates are simply overqualified, asking for too much money or lacking certain specialized qualifications.
Whatever the case, there are steps you can take to mitigate the risk of this factor impeding your success. Here are some approaches I’ve seen work over my years as a career coach, how they relate to the job search and how you can apply them to help minimize age-related concerns.
Deflect the Issue of Age When Applying to Jobs
Today’s employers place a premium on candidates — at every stage of their careers — who are up to date in their field, technically savvy and ready to make a rapid contribution. So if you’re an older professional who’s taken your foot off the gas pedal (work wise) and coasted a bit in recent years, you’ll need to get caught up to avoid being penalized. This might involve taking the following steps:
Ensure your skills are up to date
Today’s employers place a premium on candidates — at every stage of their careers — who are up to date in their field, technically savvy and ready to make a rapid contribution.
by seeking out fresh training, certifications and other learning opportunities
to catch up with any new requirements in your occupational path. This could involve taking classes to master new skills, tools and types of technology. It might mean doing some volunteer work to brush the rust off some underutilized abilities. Or it could involve studying up on new regulations or knowledge areas that are transforming your profession.
Conduct research into your industry (or better yet, launch a regular reading regimen) to make sure you’re aware of all the recent trends and terminology impacting your field. This latter item is particularly important, since the language of many industries is changing rapidly and if you’re not using the latest nomenclature (e.g., talent acquisition in the recruiting field or customer journey mapping in marketing) it might instantly signal to employers that you’re a bit behind the times.
Audit your wardrobe, grooming and fitness habits to make sure you’ll be putting your best foot forward and making a positive, confident and professional first impression out on the networking and interviewing circuit. Like it or not, style trends change and many of us (present company included) tend to get a little complacent about our attire and appearance as the years go by. So a job search can be a terrific time to clean out your closet, update your look and start a new diet or workout routine to ensure you come across as put together as possible.
Let go of outdated and irrelevant job history. As proud as you might be of those amazing things you did back in the early ’90s, most employers and recruiters aren’t going to assign much weight to your employment feats from the past millennium. So consider trimming out or consolidating early job details on your resume and LinkedIn profile, focusing instead on more recent experience and examples of where you’ve added value to organizations over the last 5 to10 years.
Avoid other age tip-offs in your job hunting materials such as using email addresses from pre-millennium services like AOL or Yahoo or addressing cover letters using the old-fashioned Dear Sir or Madam convention. Even writing your materials in fonts like Times New Roman or Helvetica, which have been greatly overused, can date you. They just don’t have a modern vibe.
Verify that your financial expectations are reasonable by consulting salary surveys, websites and recruiters regarding current compensation trends in your industry. On more than a handful of occasions, I’ve witnessed older workers blaming age for costing them job offers, when in reality it turned out to be that they were simply asking employers for salary packages that were well in excess of the current market value in their given field.
Highlight the Value of Age and Experience When You Interview
Once you’ve applied some of the above concepts to the job-finding process, it’s time to go even further and consider some techniques to help you step up your interview game. Not only have interviewing norms changed a bit, but many older workers hurt their chances of receiving offers by reinforcing certain damaging stereotypes about age without realizing it. Along these lines, I’d suggest that experienced workers concentrate on doing the following:
Look forward, not backward. When you’ve got a few decades of experience under your belt, it’s natural to want to relive your glory days and tell story after story of the great things you’ve done for employers. Recognize, though, that the hiring manager across the desk is far more interested in your future than your past. So make sure you’re demonstrating an intensive focus around the current company’s problems and how you can help solve them, not just dwelling on your exploits at employers past. Act as if your best days are in front of you, not behind you.
Engage interviewers in problem-solving dialogue instead of just politely answering questions, one at a time, and holding your own questions until the end. In the old days, interviews were more like a legal deposition. Now, employers want candidates who listen, engage, show curiosity and who aren’t afraid to push back or dig deeper into the needs of the job during the interview. So don’t be too shy about speaking up. If you’re too reserved, you may give off the impression that you’re checked out or uninterested.
View your age as an asset and be ready to talk about the wisdom, value and benefits you’ve acquired in your years of experience, instead of simply hoping employers will intuit these things. What have you learned about your field that you didn’t know when you started out? What makes you a better manager or contributor than somebody half your age? What have you gleaned from years of successes and failures that might be useful to your next employer? At the end of the day, if you’re defensive about your age or unable to articulate how your longer track record has made you better at what you do, you’ll likely have a hard time convincing an employer to give you the nod over younger applicants.
Age bias exists, it’s real, and until a better mechanism is invented to enforce against it, you can take steps like the ones above to avoid letting it get the best of you. That said, however, I’ll leave you with this final point: Don’t make age the boogeyman behind every rejection.
The job market is a lot more competitive than in decades past — and significantly more fickle, chaotic and depersonalized. So assuming age is behind any setback can be counterproductive and hold you back from addressing what’s needed to improve your success. Plenty of young and midcareer professionals experience frustration and shoddy treatment in the job market, too.
So as discussed above, take a good hard look at what you CAN control in the process, instead, in order to build value and show employers you’re at the top of your game.