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Overcoming Ageism in Your Job Search - I asked 6000 people their opinions

Hannah Mason • Jul 22, 2021
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Overcoming Ageism in Your Job Search - I asked 6000 people their opinions

Hannah Mason • Jul 22, 2021

I’ve recently seen an uplift in the number of people who say they are experiencing ageism in their job search. To further understand people’s perception of this, I conducted a LinkedIn poll. In it I asked: “To what extent do you think companies consider a candidate's age in the hiring process?”.

Here is how 6954 people answered:

  • Age is a big consideration – 40%
  • Age might factor in sometimes – 48%
  • Companies don't care about age – 12%

Clearly, a person’s age plays a big part when they are applying for jobs and this is experienced at both ends of the spectrum. Younger candidates are frustrated as they are perceived as not having enough experience and older candidates are frustrated as they are perceived to have too much experience. It can feel like unless you are in the optimum age bracket, no-one wants to hire you and it is undoubtedly harder for job seekers who find themselves at the extreme ends of their working life.

In this blog, I want to explore this issue to understand it further. I think it’s important to do this and to go beyond the statement:

“I’m not getting hired because of ageism.”

Why?

1. It’s an oversimplification. Ageism covers a wide variety of things and by not defining it further, it’s not clear what actions you can actually take. If you don’t break the issue down into definable parts, it becomes an impossible obstacle to tackle.

2. It’s unlikely to always be the case. Whilst I don’t deny some employers and hiring practices are ageist, I think it can be unhelpful to assume it’s always ageism. Not all companies are ageist, and not all ageist companies are ageist all the time. I think it is more helpful to assume the best intentions until proven otherwise and to ensure you have accurately identified the issue.

3. It takes away your power. If the problem lies totally at the feet of the system, there is nothing you can realistically do. You can spend all your energy fighting or lamenting the current state of things, but they are unlikely to change in the time you need them to. Yes, acknowledge that ageism exists, but be careful that the narrative you are telling doesn’t paralyse you into inaction.

So how should you approach ageism in your job search?

Firstly, I think it’s important to define exactly what you are facing and I believe that most situations fall into one of two categories:

Category 1: Hiring decisions based on age alone

Imagine that there are multiple candidates who all have the same skills, abilities and pay expectations. However, the employer selects a candidate based on a preference for a certain age. Perhaps the candidate they didn’t select is actually better for the role, but it was their age alone that prevented the company extending an offer. As I see it, this is clear and true ageism.

Category 2: Hiring decisions based on preferences for certain skills or attributes that are more prevalent in distinct age groups

In this situation, the company has a legitimate need for a particular type of person, and generally speaking, the attributes they are looking for are widely found within a specific age range. The company may not be against hiring someone outside this age range if they meet the other specifications they are looking for. However, candidates outside the typical age range either don’t have the right skills/experience or aren’t successfully demonstrating they meet the employers’ needs.

Depending on what category you believe you are experiencing, there are different approaches you might want to adopt.

First, let’s consider category 1

The first question you should ask yourself is ‘do you want to work for a company or industry that doesn’t value you for who you are?’. If the company is totally biased in their hiring practices and has a clear preference for hiring within a certain age range, is this the organisation you want to align yourself with? Are you going to be able to enjoy long-term success in such an organisation? Yes, you might be able to get through some stages of the hiring process, but at some point, your age will be evident. If the company is truly ageist, is it worth the effort?

It’s important to establish this and face it head on. There might be a better path for you that you haven’t yet considered. One, where you can bring all of who you are and be valued for that. Take time and consider what that might look like and what those options are. Most of us work for money and some of us, because we enjoy work or need the experience. Whatever the reasons, consider if there are other means to achieve your goal beyond employment with a company. When we move our focus from ‘I need someone to employ me’ to ‘I need to figure out how to generate income’ or ‘I need to find something that stimulates me and that I enjoy’, the available options to us multiply. Consider all the options available to you before deciding to invest your time and energy fighting your way into a system that is set up against you.

You may decide that the other options aren’t attractive and you want to be hired despite clear age bias. If so, you’ll need to double down your efforts in order to land that opportunity.

First, check your CV and resume and eliminate any possibility for bias. You can do this by:

  • Removing dates from your education
  • Removing or summarising more historic experience. If the experience is irrelevant you can remove it completely. However, if the experience is relevant, then consider adding a ‘select achievements’ or ‘earlier experience highlights’ section where you include your key accomplishments without detailing a full timeline with dates.
  • Changing your language to take focus away from years of experience. Often CVs and resumes include phrases such as ‘possessing … years’ experience’. This isn’t needed and draws instant attention to your age. Instead, consider the key requirements of the role and focus on writing about how you meet those requirements, highlighting key achievements that demonstrate the value you will be bring.
  • Style your CV based on the job you want, not your personal taste. If you want to appear more youthful, then don’t use the same CV template you had 20 years ago. If you want to show more experience and gravitas, then don’t send a CV that’s super on-trend and is focused on style over substance.

Prepare well for your interview.

The CV or resume is usually the first step to getting into the hiring process and whilst it’s easier to take the focus away from your age here, it’s more difficult once you are in an interview. Be prepared to answer difficult questions and consider beforehand the objections the employer might have about hiring you. Make sure you have a solid case for why they should hire you above the older or younger candidate they have a preference for. Consider that you may need to interview significantly better than your competition to be considered, and prepare accordingly. Yes, this is not fair. But, if you go into the interview believing you are entitled to be hired and that the company simply needs to change, you are not going to convince them to take a chance on you. Instead, focus on what you can do to get yourself into that company and then once you’re hired, be that change that you wanted to see.

Consider other avenues into the company.

Online application and interview selection processes can be particularly difficult means of being hired if you are not the typical type of candidate a company looks for. These processes are based on assessing everyone against the same criteria and this can make it hard to be selected if you are an out-of-the-box candidate. If you are already following all the best practices for CVs and interviews and it isn’t working then you might need a different approach. This might mean shifting all your attention to networking, with the aim of being recommended into the company. You may even decide to take a more creative approach to demonstrate your value to a potential employer. There are endless ways to get noticed beyond the typical application process, so don’t be afraid to try something new.

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Now, let’s look at category 2

Here, the company is quite happy to hire across different ages, but you need to demonstrate you have what they are looking for. As it relates to age, there are a few key barriers that I see people facing in this scenario.

1. Up-to-date skills and mindset

I’ve worked with people who believe they are not being hired because of their age, but other people their same age are being hired into similar target roles. The most common reason for this is not because of their date of birth, but how they present themselves. Companies often want to hire people who have their finger on the pulse and who are keeping themselves relevant. If you are presenting as someone who is traditional, old-fashioned or set in your ways, this could be putting employers off.

First, consider your CV or resume, what impression does it give? Have you created something from scratch that is designed for the modern job market and highlights your recent skills and achievements? Or, have you been using the same document your whole career that now looks like a mini-biography?

Take a look at the skills and technology you have listed, is it up to date and what the employer is looking for? Do you need to brush up on some skills? Consider your email address and provider – an email provider that stopped serving new customers over a decade ago might signal you are resistant to change.

2. Ambition

Companies often like to hire people who have something prove and who are committed to advancing in their career. They believe that such people will work harder. An objection to hiring an older candidate, might be that they believe the person is less motivated. Now of course, this isn’t always true, but it’s important to consider whether you are giving that impression.

It’s important to pay attention to the language you use and in particular, how you speak about your career. Are you referring to it as something that is finished and in the past? Are you reminiscing back on achievements and significant projects from more than 10 years ago? If so, you might be giving the impression that you have nothing left to prove and you are just seeing out your time until you retire. Evaluate what you have written and practise talking about your career as though it is something living, current and with a future.

3. Pay expectations

In particular, more senior job hunters can find their pay expectations a barrier to finding the right job. If you have been working for a long time, you may have benefitted from regular pay rises that have surpassed pay inflation, effectively pricing yourself out of the market. What’s more, younger workers are often prepared to work for less as they have fewer fixed financial commitments and the benefit of more time ahead of them to see their salary increase.

This is a tricky situation. After all, companies are commercial entities that certainly consider value for money when hiring. They are not in the business of charity and they would rarely pay someone more money when they could get the same quality of work from someone who is quite happy to work for less.

You have two choices here – you either show that you generate more value and are worthy of the bigger salary, or you alleviate the employer’s concern that you would be looking for more than a younger counterpart. It’s important to consider this from the employer’s viewpoint and to make your case clear without underselling yourself. You don’t want to give insincere reasoning that will leave the employer believing you will leave their company as soon as you land a role that pays more.

Take time to really consider your position and if you are happy to be paid the same salary as younger candidates, then articulate clearly why. If it will be a pay drop for you, then your reasoning might be that your expenses have significantly decreased recently. If it isn’t a pay drop, make this known and explain that you are quite comfortable with the salary offered, reinforcing why you are committed to the role/company you are interviewing at.

If you are on the other end of the spectrum i.e. a younger candidate pitching for a senior role with a big pay rise, then again think through why you deserve that salary and focus on the value you will add to the company. Yes, you might not have the expenses of an older candidate but you will be putting in the same work and should be paid accordingly.

4. Seniority mis-match

Generally, when you look at the hierarchical structure of any company, you see a pattern of younger professionals occupying more junior positions with the average age increasing with the level of responsibility and leadership. This is natural, as in most cases, more experience is what equips a person to succeed in a leadership role (of course, there are always exceptions). For this reason, a younger candidate applying for internship roles may not experience ageism, likewise someone in their 50s applying for director-level roles may not experience ageism.

The difficulty occurs when there is a mismatch between your age and the level of the role you are applying to. And I do think companies have reason to be cautious when hiring people without the typical years of experience for a role. A younger person who finds themselves in a senior role may struggle to garner the respect they need from employees who have been in the company a long time and view them as too young or inexperienced. Likewise, an older candidate who is hired for a more junior role might feel unchallenged or might struggle to be managed by someone younger and less experienced than them.

If you fall into this category, then some careful consideration is needed. Know that this will be the main concern an employer has about hiring you and think what arguments you have to show this will not be an issue.

Check your CV and ensure that you are correctly aligning yourself to the seniority of the role you are applying for. If you are younger and aiming upwards, then draw out your leadership experience, show that you have the ability to lead at a higher level and command respect across an organisation. Be prepared to back this up in your interview with lots of relevant examples.

If you are older but applying for junior roles, make sure you are not overselling your leadership experience. Focus on the skills you bring as a member of the team and the experience you have that is aligned to the job role. Yes, be honest about your job titles, but don’t put all the attention on those aspects of your role that might make you seem overqualified. Also, be prepared to explain why you are targeting a more junior role and why you are committed to this opportunity. You don’t want the employer to think that you are only interested in their opportunity until something better comes along.

You should also consider if you are underselling yourself. Perhaps you should in fact be targeting more senior roles but you lack the confidence to do so. Maybe employers are actually seeing you as a higher-calibre candidate than you see yourself. If you are continually told you are over-qualified, maybe you are. Aim higher until you match the roles you are aiming at.

I’ve covered a lot of different scenarios in this blog and I recognise that each situation is unique with its own set of challenges. I hope that you now feel equipped with some new ways to approach ageism in your job search.

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