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Older Americans are a significant presence in the workforce. Nearly 9 million Americans over 65 are now employed, up from barely 4 million in the year 2000. Another 26 million are between 55 and 65, and many of these will be working beyond age 65. Workers delay retirement and stay in the workforce for many reasons. Many modern workers do not work in physically demanding jobs, and the generally improving lifespans and state of health make it possible to work at much more advanced ages than were once thought practical. Some workers keep working because they enjoy work or prefer to stay engaged, but in many cases, they simply need the money. Many Americans do not have enough savings to fund retirement and have to continue working as long as they can.
Age discrimination in employment is a real problem, especially in relatively low-skill jobs. A 2017 study covering over 40,000 applicants for over 13,000 positions in 11 states found that “age discrimination in the workplace exists, and it is worse for older women than older men”. The report noted that “older (64 to 66 years) female applicants for administrative assistant jobs had a 47-percent lower callback rate than young (29 to 31 years) female applicants and older female applicants for sales jobs had a 36-percent lower callback rate than young female applicants”. People over 45 also tend to be unemployed significantly longer between jobs, though in some cases they may just be more selective than their younger counterparts. In some industries, notably technology, workers as young as their 30s may already face a stigma associated with age!
Age discrimination is a real thing, but it is not unbeatable. Millions of older people have found good, rewarding jobs, and if you’re older and looking for work, you can join them. Breaking the discrimination trap requires planning and strategy, though, so let’s look at some job hunting realities that are particularly applicable to older applicants.
Know Your Rights
Age discrimination in employment is against the law. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 specifically forbids age-driven discrimination against people over 40. That doesn’t just apply to hiring: the law covers pay, benefits, job assignments, promotion, access to training and almost every other aspect of employment. The law even prohibits workplace harassment based on age. Job interviewers cannot ask when you were born, when you finished school, or any other question designed to identify your age. If you believe you are a victim of age discrimination, you can file an administrative complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). You must file a complaint and go through the administrative process before you can file a lawsuit. For further advice, you can contact the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) branch in your area. AARP maintains a vigorous advocacy program on age discrimination issues and their website provides a wealth of information on the subject.
Legal protection is a great thing to have, but its practical impact may be limited. Interviewers can’t ask your age, but most of them don’t need a date of birth to tell a 30-year-old from a 60-year-old. It’s always hard to know why you didn’t get a job and formal discrimination may be challenging to prove. Even employers who are not trying to discriminate may have absorbed some stereotypes about older employees, and those stereotypes may affect their decisions even on a subconscious level. To break out of the age discrimination trap, we need more than a law. We need to understand the stereotypes and show that the negative ones don’t apply to us and the positive ones do. Achieving that goal takes strategy and conscious effort.
Age-Proof Your Resume
The first step to breaking age-related stereotypes is to get past the first screening point. The key to this is in your resume and cover letter, which will determine whether you’ll get an interview. Older workers face the complicated challenge of distilling decades of work experience into a document that fits on one or two pages and grabs the reader’s attention at first glance. Here are a few key points to remember.
• Concentrate on your most recent work experience. Anything more than 10 to 15 years old can be omitted or condensed into a short “other experience” block.
• If you have work experience that is not directly related to the job you want to get, emphasize transferable skills like communication, planning, or team management.
• Use contemporary vocabulary. Stay online, stay up to date, and keep familiar with the ever-evolving library of business buzzwords.
• Most people use a chronological resume, but many older workers find that the “functional resume” serves their needs better. Look up some examples and think about what will work best for you.
• Don’t include dates for your educational attainment. Employers don’t need to know when you received your degree; having it is enough.
• Consider getting professional help in writing your resume. No matter how much experience you have, selling yourself is always tough, and a professional resume writer may have valuable objective input.
• Never lie. You don’t have to discuss your age, but don’t say anything that a reader could interpret as a deliberate attempt to claim that you’re younger than you are.
When you’re happy with your resume, show it to several people you trust. Choose people of different ages and professional backgrounds and look for honest feedback. Does your resume shout “old”? Does it look like you’re trying to conceal your age? If it does, revise it or consult a professional resume writer. You want a resume that’s fresh, direct, and to the point, presenting you as an experienced, capable worker without giving any reason to speculate over your age.
Check the Tech
Many people assume that older workers are technological illiterates. That’s not true, of course, but the stereotype can put an employer off. You can address that issue from the start by maintaining a vigorous and professional online presence. Keep your LinkedIn page up to date and consistent with your resume. All of the resume hints above apply equally to your LinkedIn page, and you’ll want to pay attention to your profile picture. There’s always a temptation to use an old photo, but going too far out of date looks like deception. You don’t want an interviewer to wonder if this is the same person they saw online. You don’t need to use an outdated pic to break the age-related stereotypes. You want a picture that communicates energy, initiative, and positivity. If you don’t have one, get one taken by a professional. The idea that an older worker won’t have the vigor to contribute consistently is another of those damaging stereotypes, and a single glance at the right picture can do a lot to dispel that impression.
LinkedIn is the first place most potential employers will look, but your entire online presence is fair game. You want to be present and up to date, and to present an impression that is consistent with the data in your resume and LinkedIn page. That can be harder to do on your personal accounts, but at least until you have a job, you’ll want to keep those accounts professional and de-emphasize age-related postings. Complaining about your rheumatism on your Facebook status is not a good idea; pictures of yourself on a bike or in a pool are better. An active online presence suggests that you are comfortable with technology and up to date, and the right text and images on your personal pages can reverse many of the negative stereotypes associated with age.
Take Care of Yourself
The way you present yourself has a huge influence on success and failure in an interview. You may not be accepted or rejected based on a single glance, but you are likely to create a positive or negative basic impression as soon as you walk in the door. Paying attention to your diet and keeping to an exercise program isn’t just good for your health. An older person who moves smoothly and gracefully, stands erect and communicates a fit, energetic impression is a lot more likely to succeed than one who limps into an interview looking exhausted. Nobody expects you to be an Olympic athlete, but a decent base of physical fitness does make a difference.
Your appearance also matters. Trying to dress like a 25-year-old would be ridiculous, but you don’t have to look like a stereotyped grandparent either. Look for clothes and accessories that are professional and age-neutral, with a few subtle youthful overtones. If you’re not sure how to achieve that, look around online and ask people who know. Most of us have a few fashion-conscious people in our network, and they usually love to help!
Ace That Interview
Everything we’ve discussed to this point is aimed at this moment. You have the interview, you’ve made a strong visual first impression, and you’re sitting across from an interviewer. What you say and do now determines whether you will get the job or not. You don’t know what exactly the interviewer will ask, but you can put effort into clarifying the image that you want to convey.
Remember that not all stereotypes associated with age are negative. You need to be aware of the positive perceptions of age as well, and emphasize those while negating the less attractive perceptions. Remember, you’re not old, you’re wise. You’re experienced. You’ve been there and done that, and you bring that experience and wisdom to the table. You come from a generation that stuck to tasks, stayed with a job, and showed loyalty to employers. You have a record of success and accomplishment, you have stable and realistic expectations, and you can serve as a mentor and a stabilizing influence on younger employees. Select a number of strong points that you can stress, and learn to illustrate them with concise accounts drawing on your personal experience. Always project yourself as a cheerful, flexible team player. One common negative stereotype of older workers is that they are grumpy, set in their ways, and unwilling to adjust. You can address that belief without mentioning it by showing examples of how you have adjusted to change in the past.
Some employers may be concerned that you are “overqualified”, or that your experience may leave you bored by the work, or that your salary expectations may be higher than they are prepared to pay. Some may wonder why you are still in the workforce at an age when many are considering retirement. You can take on these perceptions, whether they are direct or implied, by telling the employer that you feel a need to stay busy and engaged, to contribute in a workplace, and to use your skills. If you sense concern over salary expectations, you don’t have to say that you’re desperate for any money you can get, even if you are. Just say that you believe in living simply and you need less than you once did. You don’t need to talk like Master Yoda, but a touch of that Jedi attitude is not a bad thing. Wisdom is a rare and sought-after quality that is associated with age. Use that association in your favor!
You Can Beat Age Discrimination
Age discrimination is unfair and illegal, but it does exist, and we have to deal with it. Part of that process involves educating employers and creating a positive image for older employees. For older Americans who are looking for work, though, our challenge is to confront those age-related stereotypes, break them, and get the job in spite of the prejudice. The tips outlined here are a starting point. Don’t lose hope, and don’t fall victim to a passive, defeatist attitude. You have experience, skills, and maturity on your side, and there are employers out there who value those qualities. Stay in the hunt, stay positive, build a winning strategy, and you will reap the reward!