Age Bias or Age Discrimination?
You look around the reception room and suddenly realize that every person sitting there — except for you — is under the age of 30. Fresh skinned, wrinkle free, and preoccupied with every conceivable technical gadget on the market, these kids are your competition. You thought you got a call for a job interview because of your skills and experience, but from the look of things, anyone who sent in a résumé was called to interview. *Sigh*
Age discrimination is a big issue, but it’s not our issue here today. Age bias is our topic, and there is a difference. The difference is subtle. In fact, it is arguably a “difference without a difference” in that the outcome is often the same: You don’t get the job.
Age bias refers to the natural reaction one has to the age of a person. All of us, regardless of age, make an immediate judgment about a person because of age. It’s intuitive. You see a child, and without conscious effort, your opinion of that person is based, in part, on age. You see a senior citizen, and the same thing happens. Age doesn’t define us, but it does shape the opinions of others around us.
Perhaps you recall the 90s television show “Doogie Howser, M.D.” A kid who is not yet old enough to drive has a license to operate on patients. His age was a constant factor in the opinions of others, and he constantly had to prove his worth to overcome age bias.
It’s much the same issue for the “Over 40” job seeker — and even more so for the 50+ professionals — particularly when your interviewer is 20-something.
Understanding what you can do to tip the scales in your direction requires that you understand how and why your age affects the perception of the interviewer. Turning a perceived negative into a positive is your next step.
But let me digress for a moment.
My inspiration in life comes from nearly half a dozen special needs kids who call me “Mom.” Some of them are my biological children; some are court appointed; one is adopted. They are all now adult children at that tenuous age of 18 to 20, when one’s independence is thwarted by one’s lack of an education and a job. God love ’em!
These kids have a tough road ahead of them. One is illiterate, but we’re working on it. Two more are autistic and struggle with learning disabilities and behavioral challenges that make them “socially awkward.” And more. But these kids provide the inspiration I need in life to face my own challenges and obstacles. If they can do it, I realize, so can I.
My eldest autistic boy once said, “We’re not special. We’re just like everyone else because everyone is different. No one is perfect.” And he’s absolutely right (except that Mom thinks he is perfect, of course!). The reason this young man has defied the odds is because he has a winning attitude, one that is inspiring. And therein is the lesson.
What, exactly, do you need to do to put a positive spin on the natural age bias issue? Keep reading:
Your attitude automatically dictates your behavior, even when you try to keep it to yourself. If you are surrounded by youngsters in your job search, and if you feel they somehow have an advantage, change your attitude. Just because statistics indicate that a younger qualified applicant is more likely to be hired than we are, your attitude will ooze out of your private thoughts and onto the interviewer’s desk. Make sure that the only vibe emanating from you says, “I’m the best person for this job.”
Sure, those 28 year old specimens look fine — but you can, too! It’s less about the clothes you wear and more about the manner in which you care for yourself. We tend to carry a little more around the mid section as we age, and so long as it is a little, it’s acceptable. But if you find that you are buying clothes that qualify for a price increase due to excess material — if you’re no longer “average to slim” — it’s time to do something about it.
Your weight is important because of the subliminal messages it sends to a potential employer. Here’s the bias: “If you don’t care about your weight (ie, you don’t care about yourself), why would I trust that you’ll care about this company?” If you’re working on it but haven’t quite dropped down to an average size before an all-important interview, slip in a comment about your dedication to your health. When asked what you do in your spare time, for example, you might reply, “After I get home from the gym, I like to work in the garden.”
Regardless of your size, your body language will speak volumes — and it speaks differently than the bodies of those in subsequent generations. By middle age, most of us have developed an air of confidence that is easily identified by the way we walk, sit, and gesture.
Before putting yourself out there in front of potential employers, video record yourself while having a conversational chat with a friend. Turn down the volume and watch the video. What does your body language say? If you see something that sends the wrong message, change it.
Hair & Clothes:
We dress differently than our younger competition, but there’s no need to dress “old”. This is one category, in my opinion, where we have the advantage. How easy is it, for example, to pick out the young men who don’t “fit” into their suits? They don’t have much experience wearing one, and it shows. You, on the other hand, are as comfortable in a suit as Great-Grandma is in her house-coat.
Choose a style of clothing that is age appropriate and that fits with the general style of the employees you’ll be working with, if you get the job. Make an anonymous phone call to the receptionist prior to your interview to find out what the dress-code tends to be. Fitting in with the culture of your potential future employer is something upon which you will be judged, so it’s up to you to see to it that you can do so.
If you get a second interview, wear the same articles of clothing you wore in round #1. It’s unlikely that your potential employer will remember what you wore — because your outfit should not be memorable — so stick with what works. It helped get you to the next round, so don’t abandon it yet.
A brief word about your smile: Spend a few bucks to buy some whitener. Even a subtle difference can make a dramatic impression. With the large number of options on the market today, it’s no longer necessary to make a trip to your dentist to achieve the age-reducing effect that results from whiter teeth.
Especially if you are a smoker, spend $10 and whiten those teeth!
Did you say “Wow!” when you looked at the “Before & After” photo of the woman, above? A cheap box of hair color can help to make a dramatic difference! Both women and men should wash that gray (or dishwater blonde, etc.) right out of their hair! Though I personally adore a man who is fully “salt and pepper,” it might age a person too much. Be careful, however, to stick with something natural looking when choosing a box of color off the drugstore shelf. Leave the goth and Marilyn styles to the kids!
Finally, for those candidates who are concerned about the aging appearance of their skin — people like me who can’t imagine serious consideration of cosmetic surgery — there IS an affordable, scientifically proven method to achieve the results you want.
At the risk of sounding like a commercial, let me just say that I know, first hand, “the secret,” and I use it twice a week. It works. (Check out my untouched photo in the header.) I’m 46, and I have fewer wrinkles and more elasticity in my skin now than I did at 36. Send me a private email if you’d like to know more.
The Substance of the Interview:
Once you’re past those “first impression” issues that have everything to do with judging a book by its cover, it’s time to tip the scales further in your favor by helping your interviewer see the advantages to hiring a grownup.
The younger interviewees may be in that stage of life where it’s extraordinarily difficult to balance home and work. New marriages, new mortgages, and the pitter patter of baby feet, all add up to distractions, exhaustion, and potential sick days while new(er) parents run to the pediatrician, to school conferences, and attempt to plan birthday parties while at the office.
We understand those distractions because we’ve been there.
Even the employer who has a tremendous family-friendly policy will have an unspoken bias which favors the potential employee who does not have to miss work, who will not be preoccupied with life outside the office. But how do you address this without insulting your interviewer who just may be preoccupied herself? Something like this:
“I enjoy working at this stage of my life in a way I never could before. Now that all of the kids are in college, I’m free to put in however much time is needed to complete a task — and that freedom is more enjoyable than I ever imagined.”
Experience, Experience, Experience:
Even the most biased interviewer will have a hard time finding fault with the fact that 40+ folks have had the time to accumulate experience. Make sure you keep your experience working for you and not against you by following these tips:
- Project “youthful energy” while speaking about your experience, skills, and credentials. If you sound like you’ve made this speech countless times, it will age you.
- Don’t slam your competition or in any way directly emphasize their potential weaknesses compared to your strengths. Very subtle implications might work, but it’s dangerous territory! Not only is your interviewer potentially younger than you, you don’t want to give the impression that you won’t fully respect your younger co-workers if you get the job.
- Limiting your résumé to the last 10 – 15 years is a good idea, when possible. But, don’t leave something out that is relevant, even if it was 20 years ago!
- In some instances, leaving your graduation dates off of your résumé is advisable. If you graduated before colored televisions were in everyone’s home, you may want to leave that fact off the face of your profile; otherwise, you may not get the interview. Once they see you in person, you can then show them that your age is a positive, not a negative!
- Don’t forget to balance humility with confidence. Your experience sets you far ahead of the crowd, but if you project an attitude that you’re “too experienced to learn new things,” you won’t get the job. Be humble enough to project the message that you’re a dedicated employee who is always looking to learn and grow.
- The “good ol’ days” are best left at home. If you catch yourself saying, “Back in the day, we didn’t even dream about Skyping!” you may have just talked yourself out of a job.
- Overqualified? Probably. But make sure your potential employer sees the value in it. Say, “I can do the work of 2 or 3 people in less time, if given the opportunity, without a learning curve. And you’ll get the credit for my placement, of course!”
- If you can’t adequately represent your experience and qualifications in a 2-3 page résumé, consider using a Professional Biography instead. For the more senior executive leadership positions, a longer curriculum vitae is in order as well as your bio.
A Summary, of Sorts
When you walk out of the interview and past all the kiddos, do a quick mental review. Did you project a winning attitude? Do you exude an energetic youthfulness in spite of your hip replacement? Did you leave the impression that you’re willing to learn in spite of your significant credentials, that your confidence is enhanced by your humility?
If so, you’ve done your best. Good for you! But don’t automatically blame age bias or discrimination if you don’t get a call back. It may be more about your salary requirement, or maybe there was just that something “extra special” about the young lady who got the job offer.
Keep on keepin’ on with a winning attitude and you will land the right job!
~ Lynda C. Watts