As the global population ages, we will see increasing numbers of older employees in the workforce. Yet age discrimination is prevalent today. According to a recent AARP study, nearly two out of three workers age 45 and older say they have experienced age discrimination.
A bias for younger employees is seen not only in the tech sector, with seven out of 18 top Silicon Valley companies having a median age of 30 or younger, but also in non-tech sectors. A study conducted by the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank showed that callback rates about jobs were lower for older applicants, with women having lower callback rates than men.
Despite the negative stereotypes that older workers have less energy and are less productive, the data shows otherwise. According to research from the Stanford Center on Longevity, older workers are healthy, have a strong work ethic, are loyal to their employers, and are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs than their younger coworkers. Moreover, a London Business School study showed that more people under 45 were exhausted (43%) than those over 45 (35%), with the least exhausted group being those over 60.
There are some jobs where gray hair (and the experience that comes with it) is viewed as an asset, such as C-level and more senior roles. Even then, an older candidate might be competing with a person — or be interviewed by someone — who is 10 to 20 years younger.
Sanjiv was in his late fifties when he interviewed as an internal candidate for the executive director role at a nonprofit. He knew the board was looking for a leader who could drive change, and came to the interviews equipped with several new ideas for the organization. Nonetheless, he was told by the board member who interviewed him that they were looking for “younger minds.”
Anita was laid off at the age of 55 after working at a large tech company for more than 30 years. Unemployed for nine months, she was starting to get discouraged after experiencing several incidents of ageism. One recruiter said outright that the company was looking for somebody younger, and a recruiter at a fraternity-like startup asked if she would have a problem with the late-night parties and drinking. She ultimately landed a great job at a large software company, where she was hired by a boss 20 years her junior.
Lauren was 49 when she interviewed and landed a job at a popular social media company, where the average age is under 30 and her boss, who hired her, was almost a decade younger than she was. Having interviewed with many big names in tech, she recognized that ageism could have been present, but says she hasn’t felt it. Nonetheless, she was conscious of not sharing information that would allow others to “do the math” to determine her age. For example, while she was open about being a parent, when talking about her kids she intentionally did not share that they were in college.
If you are concerned about ageism, employ these strategies to help make age a nonissue in your interviews:
Lead with energy instead of experience. Show your excitement about the opportunity and the work you do. Anita credits her success in her job search to her passion, which her boss still talks about. Instead of discussing how many years of experience you have, or how many times you’ve done a certain type of project, show your enthusiasm for the job by saying something like, “This is my sweet spot. This is the work I love to do.” Calling out all of your years of experience (no matter how valid or meaningful) can have the unintended consequence of alienating or intimidating your interviewer, or making you appear to be a know-it-all.
Adopt a consulting mindset. Approach your interviews as consulting conversations, showing curiosity and a learning mindset. Use good open-ended questions, combined with engaged listening, to better understand the organization’s context and unique challenges to identify where and how you can most add value. This approach will not only be more compelling but also will help you show up more confidently, as you elevate yourself to being a peer of your interviewer. The mindset shift is part of how you can change the perceived power dynamic from you really wanting or needing the job to you having the solution or know-how that the company needs.
Demonstrate humility and a nonhierarchical approach. Lauren attributes her success in her interviews to showing genuine humility and demonstrating an egalitarian approach in collaborating with others. She demonstrated this by asking questions like, “Where do you want to take advantage of the brilliant work the team has already done, and where do you think it might be time for a slightly different approach?” She also made a point to talk about “supporting teams” versus “running teams” and was sure to give credit to the people doing the work. Given that collaboration is the norm for Millennials, anything that signals a hierarchical style, like asking about title or span of control, is a red flag about one’s ability to fit into a culture where the work is co-created.
Connect with your interviewer. Research shows that starting with warmth is an effective way to influence others. This can be as simple as a smile. In finding ways to connect personally with her interviewer, Lauren made sure to use current references that a younger person could relate to, like a popular show on Netflix. Humor is another way to connect and show the other person you’d be enjoyable to work with. However, do not use dated references or self-deprecating humor like “that was pre-internet” or “that was probably before your time.” It’s uncomfortable and alienating.
Show your ability to work well with diverse groups of people. Anita illustrated this by giving examples of projects she led across multiple functions, geographies, and levels of leadership, including new managers. In doing so, she conveyed her ability to work well with younger colleagues, without needing to specifically highlight age. Similarly, Lauren conveyed that her intent was to take advantage of people’s different experiences, and gave examples of working well with people from the military who were having their first experience in the private sector. This example showed she could collaborate with younger people who had a different set of experiences without calling attention to age.
Look the part. Fitting in with a younger crowd doesn’t mean you need to wear a hoodie or look like everyone else. You should feel comfortable and authentic while being consistent with the culture. If necessary, get help in refreshing your wardrobe and accessories. Many department stores offer styling services for free. Anita brought her 26-year-old daughter shopping and bought a few outfits and some jewelry that were stylish and versatile for a range of companies. Another client got new, fashionable frames for her eyeglasses, which she wore to the interview so that she wouldn’t have to take her readers out.
Reframe any inappropriate comments or questions. In Sanjiv’s case, he could have reframed the board member’s desire for “younger minds” by saying, “I think what you are really looking for is innovative thinking. I’d love to share some of my ideas that could help this organization amplify its impact and be a model for others in the field.” When asked if she would be OK with the late-night parties and drinking, Anita kept it brief and said, “I love to celebrate success with my team,” and then refocused the conversation elsewhere. If you’re unsure how to respond to an inappropriate comment or question, respond with curiosity, asking something like, “Can you say more about that?” or “Can you share more about what you’re hoping to learn, so I can address your underlying concern?”
While ageism exists, focusing on what you can control and employing the strategies above can divert attention from your age and refocus it on why you are right for the job.
Rebecca Zucker is an Executive Coach and a founding Partner at Next Step Partners, a boutique leadership development firm. Her clients include Amazon, Clorox, Morrison Foerster, the James Irvine Foundation, Skoll Foundation, and high-growth technology companies like DocuSign and Dropbox. You can follow her on Twitter: @rszucker.