Are You Too Old to Get Hired?

Last Updated Jul 29, 2011 4:50 AM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I am in my fifties and will soon apply for a job that pays exceedingly well. In a prior conversation with the employer it was stated that they felt that older applicants, even though qualified, were less likely to succeed. I don't know if they have a bias against older applicants or if they found that older trainees were less capable of learning a different way to do what they already know (you can't teach an old dog a new trick if he already knows a different way to do the trick).

I am in excellent health, appropriate weight, appear 5-10 years younger than my age and am still mentally sharp. Do you have any suggestions (or links to articles) for older job applicants and is there anything I should watch for that might suggest age discrimination?

I find it fascinating that they said, out loud, that they felt "older applicants...were less likely to succeed." Sure, lots of people think that way, but surprising that they said it. The reality is, once you reach 40, you are part of a "protected class" which means that you can't be fired or not hired because of your age. However, there are lots of reasons not to hire any one person, so it's very difficult to win an age discrimination lawsuit on the hiring side.

In answer to what you should watch for, here's an easy answer: Nothing. Why? Because we tend to see what we're looking for, and it will cause you to second guess yourself. If the person opens the door for you, will you think, "Oh no! He thinks I'm incapable of opening my own doors because I'm so darn old!" That would be utterly ridiculous, but it's where thought patterns tend to go when you are looking for evidence that people are discriminating against you.

And even if you are illegally excluded because of your age, it is extremely difficult to prove and will cause you great stress to fight, so it's rarely worth the effort. The only people who truly win a lawsuit are the lawyers. Everyone else sacrifices their souls during the process. Lawyers, of course, don't have souls, which is why they are lawyers in the first place. (Ha! Ha! Joking. Please don't sue me.)

You've summed up some of the stereotypes about older applicants. And there may be some truth to the ability to learn new things, but there is also the very changeable desire to learn new things. Headhunter Bob Larson gave some sample phrases that older job seekers should not use, as they project that stereotypical image of "I've paid my dues, so shut up and listen, youngster!" The phrases are:

  • Been there, done that.
  • A long time ago...
  • I think that was in...
  • The way we did it was better in the past.
  • I've seen it all and I know it all.

Some other things that I've seen, that most people already know, but are worth being reminded of are:

  • Your age, social security number, marital status or anything else like that does not belong on a resume.
  • Resumes don't need to list every job you've ever had. Anything prior to 1990 should not be included, and perhaps prior to 1995.
  • Degrees only need to state the school and the degree, not the year, unless you're a new grad.
  • Resumes should be emailed or uploaded to a website, not sent through the mail.

It's important to note that hiring decisions are often made quickly and subconsciously. The hiring manager may be 100% opposed to age discrimination, but when you start in with the, "I think that was in..." her brain whispers that you're really old, and all those crabby old people that insist her baby is going to freeze to death because he's not wearing a sweater, even though it's 75 degrees out, start to infiltrate her thoughts.

So, those are what not to say, but what to say?

Keep it positive. You don't want to project that you're expecting to be discriminated against. Nobody wants to hire anyone that claims discrimination the first time something doesn't go their way.

Share recent examples. In a job interview, when you're asked, "Can you tell me about a time when..." make sure your answer is from the past two-three years.

Show your willingness to learn new things. Every job requires you to learn new things. Make sure your interviewer knows you are interested in learning and growing.

Expect pay to match the job, not your experience. Granted, if you've been doing something for 20 years, you're probably more valuable than someone who has been doing it for 5 years. However, the pay rate is going to be based on what it costs to get any qualified person into the job. Make sure your expectations are realistic.

Don't try to pretend you are younger than you are. Just as a "Back when I was..." phrase indicates you're old, trying to speak like a 20 something when you are 50 something sounds grating and faked.

Remember the positives that come with age. Employers expect you'll be more reliable, trustworthy, less likely to offend a customer with your piercings and tattoos, won't accidentally include text speak in your emails, and know how to get along with people.

If this job interview doesn't result in a job, Leslie Ayers at Work Goes Strong, compiled a list of websites that are focused on helping the over 50ish crowd find a job. Finding a job is always difficult, but the older you get the more difficult it becomes. But, it's not hopeless, so don't start thinking that it is.

For Further Reading
Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.
Photo by liber, Flickr cc 2.0

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