While I haven’t ever faced ageism personally—whether it’s because I worked in cultures where experience was valued or because I transitioned into my own business in my early forties—it’s a common fear that comes up with my job seeking and career transition clients across industries.
While I rarely learn about overt age discrimination in my practice, the following scenarios come up often for clients as young as 40:
- Hearing crickets when you send out your resume that features top brands and years of what you would expect to be considered valued expertise.
- Learning that you’re “over-qualified” in interviews even if you say you’re open to more junior roles because of a transition.
- Feeling palpable discomfort in an interview with hiring managers who are 10+ years younger than you.
While an AARP study tells us that nearly 65% of older workers say that they have experienced age-based discrimination at work, in all the above, more subtle scenarios, we have no way to validate there was age discrimination in play. Perhaps there was, and while unfair and wrong, it is something that is out of your control (and something that corporate diversity and inclusion programs are beginning to tackle in employee hiring and retention policies and training). But—there was also the perception and the fear of age discrimination on the part of the applicant—which is the part that is within your control. That fear does not bring out your best and most confident self. So, what can you do?
Get clear on your story: who you are, the value you bring and why you’re a unique fit for the role.
You can get the clarity you need by doing the following:
1. Rewrite your experience narrative
Take a look at your resume and freely write your story on a separate page. If you were to write it as a linear and purposeful career path (something many of us don’t have), how would you tell that story? What’s one major learning example from each role that brought you to where you are in your career today? Identify any conflicts or unresolved resentment that come up as you tell your story and re-frame them as opportunities you had to learn to stretch in your skills and expertise.
2. Identify your transferrable and most marketable skills
This is important for any job seeker, but especially for those concerned about being overlooked because of age. Demonstrate your value in terms of your skills and expertise that match up with the needs of the organization, not because of your years of experience. While years of experience should be something that is respected, this information may provide little value to a hiring manager who does not have years of experience under his or her belt. By building the bridge and sharing how your skills sync up with the skills needed for the role, you’re providing more tangible evidence that you’re a good fit.
3. Assume the best
If you’ve nailed your story, you’ve prepped with a friend, a partner, a coach or a mirror, go into the job search with confidence that you’re doing your best. Lead with the expectation that age will not be a factor and that the biggest variable is fit. By walking into your conversations with a fear that age will be an issue, you may be creating something that’s not actually there or exacerbating something you can overcome with an articulate and persuasive story.
One standard practice I advise clients to do when they don’t get a role, is to ask for feedback. You may be assuming there’s an age issue while there’s actually a productive piece of wisdom you can bring into your next interview (like we needed to see more quantifiable results or you don’t have the B2C marketing experience needed for this role). When you receive this valuable feedback, you can put some of your fears to rest, helping you focus on the parts of your conversations and your search that are solidly within your power.