Ageism in the Workplace
I was sitting at my desk, minding my own business, when I overheard my operations manager tell a coworker a funny story. He was designing a low cost acoustic booth and wanted to hang towels. So he headed to the department store.
“It was so funny.” he said. “I’m standing there, checking out all these towels, when I look up and see all these old ladies in their 50’s and 60’s staring at me, thinking ‘why is this young man shopping for towels?'” – obligatory laughter follows.
Seems innocent enough. Unless you are the only person in the 7 member team over 50. I’m 53. I would have forgiven him if this were a one off. But it wasn’t. And for me it was a tipping point. It was obvious to me (and a few others) that I wasn’t being taken seriously. That my time was not as respected by the client as much as the time of the young men I worked next to. I was hired as the assistant manager, not the “girl Friday,” and I was not being used to my full potential. It was maddening.
Ageism in the Job Search
When I made the decision that I would leave the start up, I felt defeated at first because I had already spent a couple of years struggling to find a position that would allow me to use my skills and experience, and pay me a fair rate. This opportunity had looked so promising on paper that I had even changed cities for it. Deep inside I knew that this company was to be the last. If it didn’t pan out, I would take a break from companies altogether and go it alone for a bit. I had had enough.
I’d come to the conclusion from the past three positions that my age was now a game changer. It’s more difficult to get a job and you’re less likely to get one that capitalizes on your talents. I decided that I had to learn to approach employment a different way and anticipate ageism. And so have many other people in, or approaching, midlife.
Ageism is a Thing
Ageism is a thing, both in the workplace and out of it. More and more people above 35 are finding that their age is the only thing between them and the job. At first glance, 35 may seem too young. Then you hear about Verizon placing employment ads on Facebook with filters that target an audience from 26-36. Welcome to a new facet of ageism. If older workers aren’t the target audience, they won’t even see the opportunity.
ProPublica bought job ads on Google and LinkedIn that excluded audiences older than 40 — and the ads were instantly approved.
You’re not Alone
Employers want cheap, cheap, cheap. Not quality or experience.
What do we do? We reach out to each other. We join groups and forums. We share our stories and we realize that we aren’t alone, and we aren’t crazy. Our only fault is that we have survived long enough to reach midlife and, in a weird twist of events, are being punished for it. But we have to understand that this situation is probably not going to change within our lifetimes. By recognizing it we can learn how to deal with it.
The Why Behind the No
By midlife, many of us are seasoned professionals in all types of industries. It’s easy to come across more than a few experienced recruiting and management professionals in groups and forums. They admit that ageism in the employment industry is most definitely a thing. Common themes tend to resurface.
Following is an anonymous collection of laments and advice gathered from around the web.
“I have more than 20 years experience in my field, advanced degrees, and have won awards for my published research. I’ve never had a problem finding employment before…and I’m too young to retire!”
Many of us are overqualified for the positions we are competing for. Sometimes we can even tell in the interview that they are not really interested in hiring us.
2. Flight Risk
“You may not realize it, but you are up against hiring managers and business owners who have heard it all before, and have gotten burned.”
Many recruiters and managers are specifically on the lookout for over-experienced, frustrated job seekers. They know that if they give someone a job who is compromising by taking it, when a better job comes along, that person is likely to bounce. Therefore, recruiters and hiring managers have become wary of older job seeking candidates.
“When recruiting for positions, I am wary of applicants who are over-qualified. They tend to be transient.”
And they aren’t half wrong. Who’s going to remain at a job when they are offered a better paying position more in-line with their experience and skill set? This is something we can’t get around. Though we may insist we are fine with compromising in the beginning just to get hired, over time we may find ourselves resentful and restless.
“I felt the overqualified person was just taking the job as a temporary placeholder. When you have a small business, you can’t take that risk.”
When you’re no longer worried about simply covering bills and the dust settles, can you really say that you would turn down a better position if it came along? Recruiters and hiring managers are tuned into this. What can we do about it?
There’s a perception that, as we age, we become inflexible. Unwilling to do what it takes to get the job done. Sometimes it comes across as lacking energy or having competing priorities (e.g. kids at home). And let’s be honest, in some cases, there’s truth behind the stereotype. Think about how many of us have zero f**ks left to give about things that don’t matter once we reach a certain age. Or the sense that we could do this job in our sleep. This attitude can come across as cavalier.
“My recruiter said that the manager hired an under qualified but enthusiastic young man over a well qualified older woman he thought was arrogant.”
The Low Wage Reality
This is a problem. 66% of all jobs pay less than $20/hr. And 43% of Americans can’t make it month to month. As older workers, we are outliers. Our cost of living may be higher than that of the 22 yr olds we are competing with for these types of jobs.
“My sister has been looking for 14 months. The only openings in our area are low-wage.”
Many of us are working 2-3 part time jobs. Unable to get one full time position with health care, we need to work several in order to afford health care.
“Full-time employees became expensive after Obama care which is why there’s so many low paying part time jobs, and not so much high paying full time ones.”
Take Action: What Recruiters Say
The brilliant thing about online groups and forums is that you can get professional advice first hand. Recruiters and hiring managers in these groups have their fingers on the pulse of employment issues, and they are quite candid with their advice. The basics:
1. Tone Down Your Resume
- Cut off chunks of unnecessary work experience: Leave off anything over 10 years.
- Use a functional resume: A functional resume focuses on skills and accomplishments and can be tailored for different employment opportunities.
- Only list experience tailored for the position you are applying for: Focus on context rather than a timeline.
- Lose the dates: Remove graduation dates on your education section. Avoid phrases like, “…over 20 years of experience in…”
- Cut your education at Bachelor’s level: Depending on the position, you may want to leave off any post-graduate study if it’s likely to flag you as an overqualified candidate.
- Make sure your skills are up to date: It’s important to stay current in your industry. Stay on it and reflect that in your resume.
2. Highlight Modern Skills
Recruiters and hiring managers tend to lower their bias when they see modern skills listed on a prospective hire’s resume, says Marina Byezhanova, co-founder of the headhunting firm Pronexia. Know the desired skillsets for your industry and brush up on the latest tech, platforms, content and processes. Then make sure that you reflect this in your resume.
3. Get Creative with Networking
Many of us can’t network like we used to, especially if we have kids. Take advantage of online professional networking opportunities. 87% of recruiters use LinkedIn. Make sure your LinkedIn profile is up to date and actively pursue connections with professionals in the field you are targeting. Reach out to companies and connect with individuals online who work there.
“Linkedin! I have had people reach out to me with recruitment offers even though I am not looking!”
But be wary of your personal social media activity. You need to keep some distance between your professional and personal online presence in the same way you do your professional and personal life offline.
“Dealing with ageism, a glut of entry-level jobs, and hiring managers that ghost. Networking and likability are the keys to getting a job in my market.”
4. Clean Up Your Social Media
Always assume you will get Googled because you will. You need to be in control of what shows up. 70% of prospective employers check social media sites for red flags. Your social media sites need to be edited in anticipation of this.
“Make sure your Facebook profile is private. I have a candidate who is probably not going to be hired just because of his Facebook.”
5. Follow-up (for real)
Once you apply, be sure to follow up regularly with the company’s HR department. Don’t just apply online to a limited number of companies and stop there. Continue to reach out to people in your industry and build a network. It may take more than you think to get noticed.
“99% of candidates who send me resumes never follow-up.”
Rising To The Challenge
Clearly older workers are up against challenges. And because of this, they have to get creative. For some of us that means going it alone, putting up our own shingle and kissing companies goodbye, for others it means juggling several part time jobs. Stay on the bright side. There are employers out there looking for no-bullshit experience and are willing to pay for it. But it just may take a bit of extra effort and time for them to recognize your talents and value.
“I ended up doing temp work but then a company picked me up after I had been there for 6 months. I guess I had to prove I was serious first.”
Finally, look for remote positions. Although it sucks to say this, from my experience, ageism is less of a thing when it’s not visible.