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2/20/22 - CV ageism: Can you be the 'wrong’ age for a job?

By Sophia Epstein

Age-related biases are baked into the recruiting process, whether conscious or not. Should workers be cagey, in order to overcome recruiters’ biases?

Applying for jobs is generally miserable, even at the best of times. But what if you knew that simply revealing your age on your CV would send your application straight into the ‘no’ pile?

That’s the reality for many people. Age discrimination means that over-50s are more than twice as likely as other workers to be unemployed for two years or longer if they lose their current job. One study showed that a 50-year-old worker was up to three times less likely to get an interview than a 28-year-old applicant. “When you’re in your 40s and 50, mentioning your age is like dropping an F-bomb,” says 55-year-old CJ* who lost his corporate marketing job 20 months ago and is still looking for another.

It’s not just older job-seekers facing automatic rejection; young people can also be discounted for roles because of their age. Although this type of ‘reverse’ ageism is much less researched, studies show that younger workers can be considered undesirable employees, and that this can lead to them not getting hired.

“When you’ve got baby boomers who think that millennials are lazy and entitled, you can imagine how an assumption like that could get into the recruitment process,” says social scientist Stéphane Francioli, of New York University’s Stern School of Business, who recently co-authored a study on ‘Youngism’, together with Professor Michael North.

Tackling the issue of age-related assumptions in the recruitment process is tricky. Some workers have come up with their own solution; 44% of over-45s admit to altering their age on their CV. Other strategies involve only detailing most recent employment experiences (for older workers), or removing age-related information like graduation dates (for younger and older workers) in order to get through initial screening processes.

But does removing age-related information from résumés really make a difference for helping younger and older workers secure a job?

A permitted prejudice?

When you apply for a job, there's no obligation to put your age or age-related indicators on your CV. Even if you do, there are laws preventing employers from overtly discriminating based on age. Yet the moment your CV hits a recruiter’s desk, subconscious biases around candidate ages are likely to kick in.

Hiring managers often don’t have time to read every application they receive thoroughly, so they often resort to making assumptions based on small details that stand out. At a certain point, the people doing the hiring are looking for reasons to say no, and age is one of them – whether consciously or otherwise.

“You're going to rely on stereotypes to make a first selection, and to some extent that’s understandable when you’ve got 200 applications for a single position,” says Jelle Lössbroek, who studies workplace ageism at Utrecht University in The Netherlands. “But this phase is where ageism is really influential.”

Whether it’s assuming older employees will take more sick days (they don’t) or younger applicants are job-hoppers (they aren’t), these clichés don’t have to be true to make an impact. “If that’s what managers think, that’s what they will consider when they’re looking at a job applicant,” says Lössbroek.

Part of the issue is many people don’t consider ageism a problem. A 2021 research paper from the Stanford Graduate School of Business showed that ageism seems to be the only condonable prejudice. “Ageism is oftentimes a bias that doesn't even get discussed in this landscape of inequality,” says lead author Professor Ashley Martin. In fact, her research shows that those who endorse and advocate for equality are more likely to be prejudiced against older individuals.

“Unlike with race and gender, we often believe older individuals have already had their successes and opportunities. So now, the natural order of things says that they should step down so that younger people can step up,” says Martin. “And that oftentimes legitimises age bias, and allows people to feel pretty comfortable excluding older individuals from the workforce.”

This problem is especially clear with hiring managers. “There’s less of an idea that you’re doing something bad when you’re selecting on age,” says Lössbroek. “Many managers would feel bad saying they were selecting by skin colour, but with age, too many managers would say it’s nothing personal, it just works better like this.”

In one of his research projects on age discrimination in hiring, Lössbroek ended a survey by asking: ‘What do you think this study was about?’ About one in three respondents correctly guessed that the focus of the survey was ageism. Lössbroek and his team then looked back over participants’ answers, assuming they would have toned down their ageism as a result – but that was not entirely the case. “Yes, they discriminated a bit less than the other groups,” says Lössbroek. “But they still discriminated a lot.” It’s as if ageism was nothing to be ashamed of.

Mitigating measures

If judgements related to worker age are inevitable, is there realistically anything candidates can do to avoid falling victim to prejudices? After all, even if you strip your CV of your date of birth, there are plenty of other age-related indicators in your list of previous jobs, skills and qualifications. Some recruitment advisers suggest leaving off key dates and only listing your last 15 years of experience, but is that a real solution?

“The more salient your age appears on your CV, the more likely the one who reads it will focus on your age,” points out Lössbroek, explaining that the harder it is to find your age, the safer you are from having your résumé thrown out before being properly read. “I think there’s some value in not displaying the age explicitly, but it doesn't solve everything.”

Stanford’s Martin suggests tackling potential ageism head-on instead. “Erasing age from a résumé is one way to mitigate some of the biases, but it’s not a way I’m overly optimistic about, she says, explaining that cutting your 30, 40 or 50 years of experience down to 15 would likely downplay your accomplishments. “Removing things creates a lot of ambiguity, and that opens up a lot of room for bias. When we don’t know information, our mind has a lot of ability to assume.”

Instead, think about what your age might suggest to a recruiter about you, and cut it off at the pass. Older applicants should, for example, emphasise their tech skills to counter possible stereotypes about adaptability. Younger workers should be explicit about problems they’ve solved, particularly ones that might appear out of their age bracket. “When you make things really clear, it becomes much harder for [recruiters] to make assumptions,” says Martin.

If candidates can catch a recruiter’s attention for the right reason, they have more chance of securing an interview and an all-important opportunity to make their case for employment in person. So, thinking about how you tackle the issue of age on your CV, both through what you chose to disclose and how you present and emphasise your skills, seems beneficial.

But companies would also benefit from scrutinizing their recruitment practices to ensure biases aren’t causing good candidates to be overlooked – particularly given the tight labour market. Action from employers would do more to move the needle on ageism in employment than tweaks to a CV.

“It makes sense to talk about strategies the victim can use,” says Lössbroek. “But usually it's the perpetrator who has more agency to change the situation.”

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