Age Discrimination: Exposing Inconvenient Truths
Several months ago I posted a blog called “Age Discrimination: Secret Conversations Revealed!” That posting became the most read article on Recruiter Musings with over 2,000 views on the first day alone, and several thousand more over the following weeks. Readers logged in over 130 comments. Those comments (posted at the bottom of the article) comprise a very interesting dialogue in and of themselves, and are definitely worth reading. They make it very clear that I had hit a sensitive spot among job-seekers everywhere. Even now, people continue to log onto that blog article, and I’m told that it inspired the formation of a special-interest group on LinkedIn.
Since that posting, I’ve discovered some very interesting facts and truths about Age Discrimination in today’s job market. Much of this is not necessarily good news for job-seekers over a certain age. Nevertheless, as inconvenient as these truths may be, I feel it’s best to be armed with the most accurate and up-to-date information. Ultimately, how one handles this issue is a very personal decision. What follows is simply the way it is:
Face It – Age Discrimination Exists!
The vast majority of “older” workers have experienced it on some level or another. It’s difficult to come up with hard data, since most companies would never truthfully cooperate with any official study … but we all intuitively know that it’s true – age bias is simply a fact of life in our society. That basic truth really hasn’t changed very much over the last century – most modern societies favor youth over age. What has changed is the advancing age of the “Baby Boomer” generation – a group that has grown proportionally compared with the rest of the population, and has skewed the age curve of available workers. In today’s candidate-flooded market resulting from the economic downturn that began in 2008, those growing numbers of older workers are increasingly competing for the same jobs as younger candidates caught up in the same mass layoffs as everyone else. Add to that the fact that everyone’s investments and retirement funds shrunk drastically during the last couple of years. As a result, Boomers are now finding that they need to keep working well past the age that they originally thought they’d retire. At the very same time, cost-conscious companies are still nervous about adding back headcount in today’s slow climb back to economic recovery. When companies do hire new staff now, many try to save money by hiring younger, less experienced people who require lower salaries. It’s really not hard to see how all those factors combine to perpetuate the practice of Age Discrimination.
Asking Your Age Is NOT Illegal
Many job-seekers erroneously think that it is illegal for an employer to ask for a candidate’s date of birth (or year of graduation, social security number, marital status, or any number of other supposedly off limits questions.) That’s simply not true! Although they’re often called “illegal interview questions” on the web, such questions are not actually illegal at all. There is no law that says that an interviewer cannot ask a job-seeker point blank: “How old are you?” However, if an interviewer asks a question that has discriminatory implications and then intentionally denies you employment based on your answer to the question, he or she may have broken the law. So to avoid any risk of exposure to future litigation, most HR professionals (especially at larger companies) are told to avoid asking such questions. But again, it’s not illegal to ask, and it still happens frequently. It happens during interviews, and it happens quite often on those pre-interview applications where leaving a question blank will get you screened out. The problem is that it’s almost impossible for a job-seeker who has been denied employment to prove age discrimination. No interviewer in their right mind would actually admit to eliminating a candidate based on their age – even if that’s exactly what they did. You’ll simply be passed over, and never really know why. That’s one of many reasons why interviewers do not return calls and emails from, or give specific feedback to job applicants who did not get hired. It’s much safer to say nothing!
Don’t Waste Your Precious Time Trying To Fight The System
I’ve heard from a lot of people who get very worked up about Age Discrimination, and feel they need to “do something about it!” They write letters, consult lawyers, lobby government representatives, circulate petitions, and threaten (and sometimes initiate) law suits. They rant and rail about it, join discussion groups that focus on it, and generally obsess on it as the main reason for their own failure to find a job. Well … sorry if I offend anyone by saying this – but I have no patience for that type of behavior. In my opinion, that sort of thing is extremely counter-productive. You certainly won’t endear yourself to any potential employers by focusing on such activities. (And make no mistake – employers are very aware of who writes what on blogs, discussion groups, LinkedIn forums, etc.) None of it will ever change the way employers behave, or the way interviewers and decision-makers screen candidates. They just won’t hire you! You cannot change the criteria that individual companies use to evaluate potential workers, nor can you change their actual job requirements – even if they include things that imply a bias towards younger applicants! If you are a serious job-seeker, then don’t waste your time and energy fighting against those things that you cannot change.
Focus Instead On Positives
You certainly can’t change your own age. That’s an obvious given. Sure, you can limit what’s on your résumé to the past 10 years, and pretend that you didn’t exist before that – at least that will avoid the sting of being eliminated before you even get to first base, and most likely score you some interviews that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. But sooner or later in every job application process, you’ll meet face-to-face with a decision-maker and they’ll size you up. Your age will be a factor – for better or worse. So what can older job-seekers do to help themselves? Here are some ideas:
- Target companies who are known to be “age friendly” and concentrate less on the ones known to favor younger workers and who emphasize their youthful cultures. You probably wouldn’t feel comfortable working in such a place anyway. Seek out employers who value workers for their capabilities and contributions, regardless of age. There are certainly industries, companies and organizations out there who are less likely to practice age discrimination than others. Naturally, the challenge for job-seekers is to identify those places and go after them. A good starting point is to simply do a Google search on the phrase “Age Friendly Companies.” You’ll find a multitude of great resources there that will lead you in the right direction.
- Pay attention to the job requirements, and only pursue positions that you truly match. Don’t waste time applying to jobs that are clearly not a match for your skills, or level of experience. If the description says they want someone with 1-3 years of experience and you have 10-15 … it’s obviously not going to be a good match. Do you really want to fight that battle? Do you really need to hear that you’re “overqualified” or that they are really looking for more of an “entry level” person?
- Keep yourself up to date on technology, and current on the details of your industry. Be a continuous learner. Be as computer and internet savvy as your younger competitors. Embrace the new information age. Read articles, blogs and professional journals that pertain to your field. Be ready to demonstrate your up-to-date knowledge in any conversation you may have with people in your specific niche.
- These next ones are cliches … but I’ll throw them in anyway: Take care of yourself physically! Exercise frequently to maintain your fitness, eat healthy, and get enough sleep. Pay attention to your appearance – keep yourself well groomed. Dress for success with an up-to-date wardrobe. You can’t change your age, but you can change the way you present yourself. Having a youthful energy and demeanor are not things that happen by accident, nor are they strictly hereditary. They are things that to some degree you can alter, and they need to be constantly worked on.
- Finally, embrace “The Power of a Positive Attitude.” Concentrate on projecting positive energy and enthusiasm in every casual conversation, every networking meeting, and every interview. I’ve coached thousands of candidates for interviews during my many years as a recruiter. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the interview process that holds true for almost every industry and every position, it’s this: the number one most important factor that determines who gets hired and who doesn’t is NOT who is best qualified, who has the most experience or skills, or who has the best résumé – and it’s NOT AGE. It’s attitude! People hire other people that they like, and want to be around. Real enthusiasm for a position or a company, true passion for your work, a sense of humor, and a genuine projection of positivism and optimism are the qualities that make a person attractive to others. A positive, energetic and youthful attitude can easily transcend age as a factor and it’s nearly impossible to fake. It’s an incredibly important issue for every job-seeker to think about and to try adjusting within themselves.