May 22, 2024

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Ageism in the workplace: Tips for fighting it while job searching

5 min read
Ageism in the workplace: Tips for fighting it while job searching

Ever feel like you’re getting rejected for jobs because of your age?

As upsetting as it is, chances are your age — whether you’re younger or older — has or will be used against you during your career at some point.

“Sometime in your life, someone with decision-making power will size you up based on your age, and you will be negatively impacted,” said Michael North, an assistant professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, who has studied ageism in the workplace. “Age discrimination seems to be the most socially condoned prejudice.”

For jobseekers who feel like they’re getting an unfair shake due to their age, finding recourse can be a challenge. It’s hard to know and prove whether age has played a role in the decision-making process — and if you think it might have, was it intentional or not? Additionally, not all workers are protected by laws that aim to prevent age discrimination in employment (federal laws, for example, protect people 40 and older). So what can you do to ensure your age won’t dampen your chances of landing your next job?

Combat the narrative associated with negative stereotypes, workplace experts say. Here are some ways to fight age stigma while on the job hunt.

Emphasize flexibility and willingness to learn

Both younger and older candidates face a similar stigma: The idea that they don’t want to change or have stubborn demands. Workplace experts say candidates can combat this by showing what efforts they’ve made to quickly pick up new skills and show enthusiasm for future learning.

That might mean enrolling in extra training courses, getting new certifications and highlighting them in your résumé or interview, North said. Younger workers may need to show that they have taken proactive measures to learn new job skills they may lack. Older workers may want to show that they can keep up with fast-paced environments and various tech tools.

“Show your tech acumen and use of relevant apps for that role,” said Teresa Freeman, a career coach, who has previously worked as a human resources executive for companies including Amazon, Deloitte and PwC.

You may have decades of experience under your belt or just a couple of years. Either way, as a candidate, you’re expected to learn about how a company currently operates. That means showing respect for the company’s DNA, experts said.

For younger people, understand what you bring to the table while paying tribute to the company’s history and previous success. “Don’t go into every interview calling yourself a disrupter,” North said. “Not all older generations will be open to that.”

For older workers, show your excitement and humility — energy that’s often associated with younger workers.

Choose experience over years

Your years on the job may not always work in your favor. Too many may signal negative older worker stereotypes and too little may convey a lack of knowledge or readiness.

Removing dates from jobs and graduations on your résumé might not only help you avoid the stigma a human reviewer may make, but also from machines making automatic rejections, said Aaron Wallen, senior lecturer at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies. If an artificial intelligence system has concluded that the most successful candidates are typically younger or older than you, that may be a factor in whether your résumé makes it out of the stack.

“If you don’t have to input this information, don’t volunteer it,” he said, adding that phrases like 40-plus years of experience also may not be best.

Instead, stick to your skills and experiences. If you lack experience in one area, show how your skills are transferrable for this specific job. You can also be clear about any kind of transition, like a career change, or gap in employment by placing it in an executive summary section at the top of your résumé, Freeman said. Quantify your previous work’s impact with numbers or qualify it by explaining how it affected the results.

Similar to removing dates, avoid using phrases that may lead to age-based stereotypes. Instead, candidates should think about the narrative they’re trying to create and refer to stories and accomplishments that support it.

Older workers should emphasize action words and highlight their energy, ability to innovate and stay current. Stay away from phrases like, “You may not remember this,” “I’m old enough to be your parent” or “I may be dating myself,” said Freeman. Try to tell recent stories, and if you’re using one from decades ago, explain how it could apply to today’s work.

Younger workers should stay away from trendy slang that older colleagues may not understand or appreciate.

One of the worst things you can do during your job hunt is try to be someone you’re not. So don’t use decades-old headshots or those that have been heavily edited to make you look different. Wear professional attire, but don’t try to go outside your age group or adopt different slang to appear younger or older, Wallen said.

Use every interview as a chance to build rapport because relationships go a long way, experts said.

This gives young people the chance to show off social skills, eye contact and preview how you might act in a collegial or client-facing interaction, said Freeman. And for both older and younger workers, a good interview may provide connections for other opportunities even if you don’t land the job. If you’re applying to multiple jobs, don’t let interview fatigue decrease your energy or preparation for the next.

It’s a simple piece of advice but often hard to follow. When applying or interviewing for a job, show confidence but be careful not to come across as cocky — a stereotype both young and older workers face. Younger workers may also have to combat the idea that they are self-centered and entitled.

“There’s a fine line between a know-it-all and demonstrating confidence,” Wallen said. “It’s the ability to show interest in the other and be authentic.”

Every generation has something to learn from another. So seek feedback from people of various ages and industries during your application process.

You can start by recording yourself answering questions to fix unintentional fidgets, bad posture, filler words or eye contact, Wallen said. Then broaden it to include mock interviews with others outside your age group who can give you their feedback. You may also want to have them review your résumé or cover letter.

“If you have just your own voice and view without a gut check, you could be missing out,” Freeman said.

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