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Getting Hired: Is Ageism Real?

Dear Coach Joan,
I have found it impossible to obtain job offers. Upon reflection, given the training, additional education completed, good references, extensive life-experience, etc., that I offer, as an older person, the singular characteristic seeming to prevent being hired is ageism, which, of course is hard to actually confirm.
Any thoughts about both the reality of ageism, in our society, and how to succeed, despite it?
Dear William,
Thank you for writing and I am sorry you are in the frustrating position of not getting job offers for positions you believe you are fully qualified for. That hurts. Whether it’s due solely to a competitive job market, or based on unfair criteria, it never feels good to be rejected.The job seeking process is often fraught with emotional ups and downs but can be especially difficult when we don’t know if we’re being fairly evaluated.
We know it is against the law for employers to discriminate on the basis of age, race, gender, etc., but does that mean it doesn’t occur?
In my experience I do believe that sometimes there is both conscious and unconscious bias in the hiring process. People are sometimes screened and judged based on their perceived age, size, color, or other often extraneous characteristics. And I do believe that ageism and other isms do sometimes play a role in evaluating candidates. I think that ageism is more prevalent in the ‘younger industries’ like high-tech, but it can be operating in other industries as well. And I believe that in general, unless trained out of it, most people look to hire candidates who are similar to themselves.
So, the bad news is that the playing field is not necessarily a fair one, and we are sometimes pre judged by aspects of ourselves that fall into stereotypes that are either wrong or irrelevant to what we offer as a job candidate.
But, William, here’s the good news:
Knowing that you might be pre judged badly based on your perceived older age, do what you can to counter that impression. You can intentionally shape first impressions and counter some of the biases that people might have about older workers:

  • Make sure your appearance is up to date. Why be rejected based on something as easily fixable as clothing and grooming? Look to fit into today’s prevalent culture. Groom yourself with a good haircut, perhaps even dye your hair if you have grey or white hair. I had a client do that and he was surprised at how interviewers seemed more open to him with his ‘younger’ hair. I wouldn’t go as far as suggesting plastic surgery, but if minor changes like hair style, makeup and choice of clothing can be changed to look younger, then do it. And as I suggest to all job seekers, be awake, alert, positive, walk with a brisk step, show energy and enthusiasm.
  • Do your homework. Be prepared, do your research. Be knowledgeable about the position and the organization. Come prepared with current and relevant examples of your work and results you brought about. Be articulate and prepared with intelligent questions. Show that you understand the organization and the context they operate in. Bring in fresh ideas and thoughtful strategies. Practice interviewing with a friend or colleague and get feedback for improvement. Be authentic and assertive! Talk about your recent accomplishments and project vigor and a strong work ethic — and show that your brain is ON!

We have research (sourced from AARP Magazine) that older workers, in fact, are more reliable, steadier and often provide better judgement and problem solving skills, based on years of experience. And we also know that some of the concerns that hiring managers have about older workers can be counteracted by proactively discussing them. For instance, a friend of mine in the teaching field said that her hiring team is sometimes reluctant to hire an older teacher, concerned they will invest a lot in training them, and worry that the new hire won’t stay long enough for that investment to pay off. So why not proactively suggest to the employer that are you very healthy, ambitious, love your field of work, and plan to work for at least another 10-15 yrs.

And I’d like to leave you with an encouraging anecdote. A friend who owns a small business in the Bay Area confided to me that he actually prefers to hire older workers! He has a conscious bias toward older candidates. Why? He finds them to be more conscientious, appreciative of the work opportunity, resourceful, and often better problem solvers based on years of experience.

Bottom line, the real world is not always fair, but by understanding the playing field better, you can intentionally shape your preparation and presentation to put your best foot forward. And I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw those job offers appear, William. Persevere, keep applying for the positions you know you can do, and best of luck to you!


Coach Joan

Kindly send your work and career related questions to: [email protected]

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