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Heard of the Glass Ceiling? What About the Age Floor?

Heard of the Glass Ceiling? What About the Age Floor?

Even in this boom economy, workers aged 50 and up are finding that their age can be a giant barrier to finding work. And even though companies aren’t allowed to discriminate based on age, plenty of evidence suggests that they do. Older workers can’t find jobs — or even interviews — even though the country is practically at full employment.

Psychologists at Princeton University called ageism “the most socially condoned” form of prejudice. And it’s intensifying. Older workers are the fastest-growing labor group in the U.S. These days, people are healthier, living longer and either need to or simply want to keep working. This means the retirement age is rising. But unless older workers are able to hold onto their jobs past their 40s, they could be shut out of the job market.

Job seekers in this age category are three times less likely to land interviews, and it’s not uncommon for job searches to extend for several months — if they’re fruitful at all. Research from the Brookings Institution found that by the time people reach their mid-60s, two out of three have retired, either voluntarily or because they weren’t able to keep or find a job.

Job postings may not come straight out and say “Older workers need not apply,” but they’ll use code words for “too old.” These may read: “Looking for 5-7 years experience,” or include terms like “recent grad” and “digital native” to signal they’re only targeting young talent. On one job postings site, a drop-down menu used to provide the applicants’ graduation date only went back to 1980 — excluding most older workers.

Job seekers hoping to circumnavigate age biases in hiring will leave dates off their resumes, yet sometimes these candidates are asked to provide their birthdate on job applications. (This practice enables employers to conduct background checks on the candidate.) Legally, employers are supposed to separate the birthdate information from the resume so that age discrimination won’t arise during the interviewing process. However, even when there is no obvious age discrimination, there is still a bias toward younger workers.

Society today associates youth with competence and advanced age with inflexibility, unwillingness to learn, and having one foot out the door to retirement. But, an online survey of 10,000 people concluded that, in fact, many of the traits commonly attributed to younger people — energetic, technologically adept, excited by their work — are shared across the whole workforce.

Knowing that ageism is alive in hiring practices, what can job seekers in their 40s and beyond do to defuse it? Here are some strategies to try:

Address the Elephant in the Room

Understand the biases, conscious or unconscious, against older applicants and use persuasive examples to illustrate that the stereotypes don’t apply to you. Job candidates need to be explicit that they’re eager to work hard, are able to embrace new technology, and have a proven track record of contributing to companies in valuable ways.

Show That You’re Technologically Savvy

List any social media profiles on your resume, along with platforms or programs from your field in which you’re proficient, so the employer knows that you’re comfortable with technology. Staying current by remaining on the cutting edge of industry software and technology will dispel the myth that you’re out of touch.

Have an Online Presence

Become active in your industry’s LinkedIn forum. Take care to trim your LinkedIn profile to include only relevant experience in your desired career, and highlight only positions that extend back 15 years or less. If appropriate, blog regularly about industry trends so that you can demonstrate your expertise and insights.

Tout Skill Advancement

Don’t expect on-the-job training in any software platforms or systems. Instead, seek out online or continuing ed courses to stay on top of workplace requirements. Add any recent certifications to your resume.

Seek Out Age Agnostic Organizations

Some movements are now taking shape to address ageism in hiring practices. One developed by AARP certifies “age friendly” companies who meet specific criteria with respect to how well they treat older workers and job applicants. Online employer review sites can provide insights into attitudes toward older workers.

Keep in mind that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act is the legal tool to address ageism in hiring. But, unless an employer blurts out “you’re too old,” it’s difficult to prove. In any case, as a job seeker you probably wouldn’t want to. You don’t want a lawsuit. You want a job.


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by Vicky Oliver // Vicky Oliver is a leading career development expert and the multi-best-selling author of five books, including Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers & Other Office Idiots (Sourcebooks, 2008), and 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions (Sourcebooks 2005), named in the top 10 list of “Best Books for HR Interview Prep.” She is a sought-after speaker and seminar presenter and a popular media source, having made over 901 appearances in broadcast, print and online outlets. For more information, visit vickyoliver.com.

Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.