How Old Is Old?
Lately the theme of being too old has continued to pop up in my coaching practice like a Whack-A- Mole game on steroids. The ironic thing is that the people who have brought it up have ranged from 39 to 60. These people are not making this up out of whole cloth. They are getting a signal from something or someone that they are too old to do the job they want to do. Is there an age that is too old for a job? Of course there is. Ninety years old is (probably) too old to do the Tour de France. So . . . there is probably an age that is too old to do some kinds of physical jobs. How about mental jobs? I personally doubt it. There are people who are as mentally agile in their nineties as some 25 year olds. I am not saying that all 90 year olds are, but there are some. And there are some 90 year olds that would be better employees than some 25 year olds. There aren’t many 90 year olds out there looking for jobs, so let’s talk about my 30-60 year olds who are being put aside because they are “too old.”
Let’s start with what is going on in the job seeker’s head. Are there other reasons that they aren’t getting the job that they are attributing to being too old. In other words, is the “too old” thought in the job seeker’s head rather than in the recruiter’s head? Maybe. When you don’t get a job and you are looking for a reason, sometimes you attribute it to your own greatest concern–in this case, being too old. In other cases, not being pretty enough, or being too tall, or not being an extrovert, or not being smart enough. In other words, maybe you are self-sabotaging by attributing your failure to get the job as being something about yourself that you can’t change. What about if it was because you didn’t come across in the interview well (you talked too much, or you didn’t make eye contact). What about if it was something on your resume–in one case in my recent experience a typo!–or the lack of the kind of experience they are looking for. Or, what if, as in most cases these days, the resume just never got in front of the right eyes? Your resume was the 583rd resume that came in when they stopped looking at 30? SO, examine your own mindset and make sure you aren’t attributing it to age, when it is something altogether different.
It is about age, sometimes, though. People (recruiters, hiring managers, and even you) have stereotypes and prejudices about age that stop you at the door. Understandingstereotypes a little can help to counter it bit.
Let’s look at common stereotypes about aging:
- Older people are more set in their ways
- Older people’s thinking ability deteriorates
- Older people’s physical ability deteriorates
- Older people don’t make good decisions
- Older people can’t learn, especially technology
- Older people can’t remember things
So why would anyone want to hire someone for a job who is set in their ways, can’t think, can’t do physical work, can’t make good decisions, can’t learn and can’t remember things? No one would. The problem is, these things are not true about ALL old people. In fact, they aren’t true about MOST old people. (And remember, some of these “too old” people we’re talking about aren’t even 40 yet.) In some businesses, especially those high tech, start-up kinds of businesses, twenty somethings are preferred to those older than that.
Stereotypes exist because there are some truths to them. Some old people are set in their ways (as are some young people–ever met a rebellious 16 year old?) Some older people–even as young as late forties–have dementia. While I am actually stronger and in better shape than I was in my thirties, there are “old” people who have let themselves deteriorate physically. (Not to say that I’m OLD, but I am over 39) And then there are those who haven’t kept up with the technology (although if I need my computer fixed, I call on my 80 something father–or my 21-year-old nephew, and frequently they consult). The tough thing about stereotypes is that they are not reasoned, rational thoughts. They are automated, instant conclusions that we frequently don’t even know that we have. That makes them very hard to refute. When someone who is recruiting for a job takes one look at your resume, looks at your years of experience, the year you graduated from school, the year of your graduate degree, she automatically concludes you are too old for the job because her auto-thoughts go to all the stereotypes listed above. She can’t even stop herself from dong that. It gets worse if the person she is hiring for has told her (illegally, I might add) that he doesn’t want anyone over 30 or 40 or 50. Now she’s got instructions to validate her stereotypes.
Stereotypes Don’t Apply To You
These things don’t apply to you, you say. You feel, think, act, deliver the same way that you did 20 years ago. Yeah, that’s the frustrating thing about this. When a “wrong” stereotype applies to you, reality isn’t a sufficient defense. Because stereotypes are based on facts. They are based on generalized assumptions. So what do you do? First of all, you MAKE SURE that the stereotypes don’t apply to you. Make sure you are up to date in all the latest theories, research, tools, and current news in your field. Make sure that you are current in all the technology. You don’t text, you say, because it is expensive, or dangerous, or whatever. Most big companies these days have a texting-IM’ing ability for their employees for in-house communication. You better learn. You don’t do Excel, or Publisher, or Access because you never needed it. You need it now. Learn it. You don’t do webex or Telepresence or GoToMeeting. Then you can’t meet with a huge contingent of workers in almost any company these days. Learn it. You cannot stop paying attention to and learning technology tools. If you do, then they’re right. Get yourself and keep yourself in shape. I heard a recruiter say that he walked people up the stairs and if they were huffing and puffing at the top, then they didn’t get the job. Fair? No. Legal–not sure–depends on the job maybe. Real? Yes.
Once you make sure that indeed, none of this applies to you, then you need to counteract it in the recruiter/hiring manager’s head.
- Get past the resume screen. You need to have at least 10 years experience (if you have it) on your resume. After that, make a calculation about whether the older experience is relevant? Can you say, “more than ten years experience?” Is there a logical break short of going back to when you dipped ice cream at Baskin Robbins? Address the relevant experience necessary for the job, but consider taking some of it off your resume. I know, I know, you are more valuable because of that experience. Prove that to them in the interview, or on the job. Don’t get cut at the resume stage. Same is true for the year you graduated from college. Is the information that is important that you graduated, or the year that you graduated.
- Get them to see you as a person, as opposed to an (too) old person. The one thing that helps overcome stereotypes is for people to come to see you as not a fit with the stereotypes. We all do this. We don’t necessarily admit to anyone that we do it, but once we see a person as “one of us”–co-worker, friend, leader–as opposed to as “one of them,” we stop thinking that the stereotypes apply. Do this in the phone screen. Do this in the interview. Do it in any interaction you have with the recruiter or the hiring manager. Do it with interactions with co-workers. Is it fair that you have to do this? No. Is it effective? Yes.
- When you encounter a recruiter/hiring manager who is probing your resume/experiences trying to prove/apply the stereotypes, challenge them. Yes, I said challenge them. You don’t have anything to lose. If they are trying to figure out your age, then they hold those stereotypes. They aren’t allowed to ask how old you are, so they’ll ask what year you graduated from college. Or they’ll ask whether something was your ‘first’ job with this company. They’re going to go where they’re going to go. If you ask them if they are trying to figure out how old you are, then you make it a little better for the rest of us who come after. You probably won’t get the job, but you probably weren’t going to get it anyway. You can ask them why they think age is relevant for this job. Are there some parts of the job that are specific to younger people. Again, let me be clear–this will not help you get the job. It will make their stereotype-thinking more conscious and it might make a difference in changing the way they think–for those who come after.
Get The Stereotypes Out Of Your Own Head
When you don’t get a job, do not automatically assume it is because of the way you are (age, health, credentials). Of course it may be. But it is more likely to be about the fact that your resume never got to where it needed to get–it didn’t make it past the computer screen, never got to the top of the pile, etc. The way you think about it is critical to your ability to get up and keep going. Erase the stereotypes from your own head. Assume other decision points. Keep going.
Best Way To Find A Job, Stereotypes Or Not.
Networking. Hidden Job Market. Stereotypes are much less a factor when you do it this way.