Too Old To Get Hired?

by Urschel, Harry Tuesday, March 16, 2010
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One comment I hear often from people over 50 is that it’s very tough for them to get a new job because of their age.

When they aren’t getting a new job in the timeframe they hoped, the assumption is that some form of age discrimination is taking place.

That kind of thinking is reinforced by ads for “Just For Men” hair coloring, news stories I’ve seen of people getting plastic surgery to look younger for job interviews, or frequent advice I hear “experts” give to truncate your resume to the last 10 years so as not to give away your true age.

Are these things warranted? Is age discrimination dominant in the job market? If you are over 50...or over 60, are you doomed?

Short answer: NO!

You want more explanation? Sure...

I’ve been in the employment placement industry for over 23 years. In that time I’ve seen blatant discrimination, and I’ve seen real and dramatic changes in the market as well. I can definitely say that in today’s market age discrimination exists much more in people’s minds than in reality.

I’m not naive enough to say it never occurs anymore, and at times it can be difficult to discern if a decision was made based on age or other factors. However, I can point to several key things that demonstrate that age is not the brick wall many believe it is.

20 years ago, as a recruiter, there were many times I would get subtle, and not so subtle requests that were clearly formed out of age discrimination. Although I never accepted orders like that, it was obvious that their hiring objective was going to be slanted. Certainly it had been even much worse 30 or 40 years ago. Most of the legal protections and public lawsuits had already occurred by the mid-80’s. Legally, people already knew then, as now, that there was great potential liability in discriminatory practices.

Times have changed though, and in the last several years I’ve seen a real switch in perceptions and practices. Particularly once the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, there began a shift in most of my clients in what was more highly valued. During the boom times of the late 90’s, because of incredible growth for most companies, people were promoted and hired into senior roles at younger and younger ages. The need was there for leadership, and in so many cases, people that showed any potential were moved into leadership roles. Unfortunately, because of the lack of experience, a great many projects and initiatives were poorly managed right down the drain. As long as the market continued to grow, companies could afford to absorb those mis-steps and keep going. Once the bubble burst, 9/11 came along, and we plunged into a recession...there no longer was any such thing as ‘acceptable losses’.

Clients began to talk to me about needing someone that’s ‘been around the block a few times’. They wanted people that had ‘been there and done that’ when looking for a new project manager or business leader. They needed experience to be able to know how to look for speed bumps and how to successfully navigate around them. No longer were they looking for the 30 year old ‘up and comer’, but were much more interested in the 50 year old proven performer.

That has, in my experience, continued to this day. Of course it’s not universal, there are always exceptions and always will be. However, seeking solid, successful prior experience has become by far the norm rather than the exception. We are in an era where companies are no longer looking for a new hire that will stay with the organization for the next 20 or 30 years. In many cases, they feel fortunate if they can get someone for the next two. Someone that shows them that they will be a true asset for the next year or 2 will be far more attractive than someone that appears they will be a dead weight in the company for the next 10.

Although age is not the barrier it once was, being ‘old’ is! Being ‘old’ is a state of mind that can be as prevalent in 30 year olds as it is in 60 year olds. When a hiring manager is interviewing candidates, almost without exception they are attracted to someone that comes across as professional, humble, passionate, enthusiastic, technically and functionally current, coachable, and articulate. I have personally interviewed people well into their 60’s that exude all of these characteristics, and have interviewed many people in their 20’s and 30’s that exhibit hardly any. A burned out, or cynical 25 year old can come across as way too ‘old’ compared to a gray haired 60 year old that has a spark and desire for new opportunities.

There’s an instance where a hiring manager interviewed several people for a position. Two people in their 50’s that were both passed over each commented that they were sure it was because of their age. They each lamented the challenges they face because of ‘blatant’ age discrimination whenever they go to an interview. What they didn’t know is that the person that actually was hired for the role was nearly 60. It wasn’t their age that was hurting them, it was how ‘old’ they were.

There is an IT Business Analyst I know well that is nearly 65 years old. In the last several years he’s gotten caught up in a series of layoffs. Not due to his own fault, however, due to corporate mergers, cut backs, and reorganizations. Unfortunately, that is often the norm these days. He, however, has always been able to land a new position within a matter of weeks because as soon as anyone meets him, age never becomes an issue.

He networks constantly. He takes initiative in contacting people whenever he finds an attractive job opportunity. He presents himself with energy and enthusiasm. Although he’s all gray and balding, he dresses with well fitting, well pressed, professional, and up to date clothing. He expresses sincere interest in listening to others, to new ideas, and to different ways of doing things. He comes across as coachable and with a desire to succeed. Those are the characteristics any hiring manager is looking for in a new employee regardless of age.

So, if you are in your late 40’s, 50’s, or 60’s...what do you do?

Determine to set your own mind straight! Don’t allow yourself to wallow in excuses. Will you occasionally run into a situation where you are not chosen purely because of your age? Possibly. However, is that a company you would have really wanted to work at then? Move on to find another opportunity. Whether it’s challenges because of age, sex, disability, poor work history, or anything else...they can be overcome with the right attitude and extra effort. For every person that says they can’t get a job because of a particular challenge, there is someone else with the same situation that did get a job. Determine you will be an over-comer!

Take a look at how ‘old’ you might be! Whether you are 25 or 75 be honest with yourself as to how you may come across to others. Do you have a cocky attitude that says “I know more about this than you do”? Do you come across as inflexible or stuck in how you’ve ‘always done things’? Do you show enthusiasm for your career and opportunity? Do you listen effectively, or only want to tell? Do you show that you care about your professional appearance? Do you have a positive, optimistic attitude and outlook, or do you have a tendency to always point out why something may not work? The image you portray may make you appear too ‘old’ for any position. Be sure to present yourself in the best way you can.

Don’t allow the negative influence of others that are convinced they are being discriminated against because of their age affect you. Present a positive attitude, apply effective job search techniques, network relentlessly, and you too can land your next job soon!