The Elephant in the Interview Room: Are You Being Passed Over Because of Age?

By Beth Braccio Hering, Special to CareerBuilder

"I can see the look in people's eyes when they first greet me," says Bill Wood, a 64-year-old from Minneapolis, Minn., who is looking for a job in information technology. "It seems to say, 'This guy is going to retire soon; we don't want a short-term permanent employee.'"

Cyndi Pauwels, a writer in her '50s from Yellow Springs, Ohio, has had similar experiences. "I was told (second-hand, off-the-record) by a headhunter, 'We don't hire older workers.' I've read that the longer I'm unemployed, the less likely my chances are of finding anything, and I'm beginning to believe it."

The current recession has been particularly hard on older job candidates. In March 2011, the duration of unemployment for all seekers averaged 39 weeks. But in April, the average length of unemployment for people over 55 surpassed the year mark (53.6 weeks), according to an AARP analysis of Labor Department data. And while age discrimination is illegal, that certainly doesn't mean it isn't happening. Complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have increased 35 percent over the last three government fiscal years, compared with the average of the three years prior.

What is behind the longer length of unemployment? Lisa Quast, author of "Your Career, Your Way!" and president of Career Woman Inc. in Seattle, Wash., notes the following:

  • Corporate downsizing during the recession eliminated many of the middle-management positions previously held by older workers.
  • There are more entry-level positions available, and these are the positions into which young people are being hired. Higher-level positions are less numerous and harder to obtain, so it can take longer for older workers to find an equivalent position to what they previously held.
  • Older workers are further up the career and salary ladder. Many do not want to take a position beneath their skill level, so they hold out on accepting lower-level positions, thus increasing the duration it takes to find a position.

Yet even when older workers are willing to settle for less, they often get passed over. "I have dropped my salary expectations to allow me to compete with younger candidates," Wood says. "The philosophy of industry in the past was to bring in 'young guns' that have fresh ideas and ways of doing things. Unfortunately for people in a similar position as me, companies are not changing that attitude and are missing out on a golden opportunity to improve the business by utilizing experience."

Older workers often are perceived as outdated or stuck in their ways. Such stereotypes can be hard to shatter, but not impossible. "Show some enthusiasm. Discuss how you have been innovative and are a lifelong learner," says Robin Ryan, author of "Over 40 & You're Hired!" "Demonstrate on a resume and in interviews the results you have achieved in the last few years. Show recent training (especially your technical prowess) and innovations made on the job, such as creating something new, making process/system improvements or saving past employers money." Ryan also notes that many mature workers appear "weather-worn and tired out" and suggests looking as vibrant as possible with a new hairstyle and a contemporary, well-fitting suit.

While being lively is one thing, trying to hide your age can backfire. "In some cases, I see older workers removing the dates of their college degree(s) or their earliest jobs from their resume in order to appear younger," Quast says. "However, savvy hiring managers are able to see the candidates in person and guesstimate age -- and may then be forced to ask candidates to explain holes in their resume, leading to questions of integrity and additional embarrassment."

Focusing on what you can offer a company (wisdom and experience) rather than what you can't (youth) often sets the tone. "If you sense the hiring manager is worried about your age, then take the first step to put him at ease by explaining how you believe your knowledge, skills and experience would benefit him and the position," Quast says. "If you choose to ask about his concerns, do so in a highly professional manner, such as, 'Based on my education, skills and experience, are there any concerns you have that I am not qualified for this position?' The goal is to get the hiring manager to show his hand without you having to bring up the topic of age."

Finally, resist making blanket assumptions that companies only value youth. "The real-life experience of older workers can be of huge benefit in the business world, especially for start-up companies with a lot of young workers," Quast says. "If you are truly worried about your age being a negative factor, seek out companies who could benefit from your expertise and sell them on yourself and your skills!"

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Beth Braccio Hering researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues for CareerBuilder. Follow @CareerBuilder on Twitter.

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Age discrimination is real, and there are many ways companies get away with it even in 2011. Unfortunately there are too few hiring managers who will hire a worker in their 40s let alonein their 50s or 60s. There are certain industries and organizations that are better than others. Associations and non-profits are one potential. Health care and health information management is another potential for more experienced workers.

August 05 2011 at 12:31 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I am 61 and faced the same challenges. I was out of work for several years. I started a business that failed and I eventually found a job teaching at an inner city middle school. The pay is about half what I was making in the corporate world, but it is more rewarding, and I have the summers off. If I hadn't found this job, I don't know what I would do for employment. I have a friend who made six figures for many years and lost his job and is now working for a third the money at a call center. The job sucks but there aren't many options for older workers. It is scary!

July 18 2011 at 8:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What a run around. Some people will believe anything. What about the young people who can't find a job ? Most companies will hire people who are not likely to retire soon because of the fact that in many cases they're smarter than the young set. You might look toward Washington to figure out why the rate of unemployment is so high.

July 18 2011 at 8:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Alan Tomanek

Recently I was talking with the store manager of a large grocery store in my neighborhood and made the comment that most of the employees were older and I asked what was up with this. The store manager said that the kids today have no respect, values, and don't want to be told what to do. She said that the older people have a sense of pride in what they do. They show up on time. They are respectful of management and their peers and all around a better employee to hire in the long run. So remember how much you have to offer and don't take NO for an answer.

July 18 2011 at 7:52 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

I was laid off 2 years ago. Not only am I 55 but also can NOT speak Spanish! I took a job making $16,000 compared to my previous salary of $70,000.

July 18 2011 at 7:45 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

The truth is that younger people cost less in the long run. They will work for a lot less, they don't get sick as often so they don't use sick time up, they don't already have medical issues so employer costs are less for healthcare, and they are stupid over what an employer can and cannot do to their workers. Sure they don't have the training and experience older people do, but then the business can teach them exactly how they want things done. Plus they don't have any bad habits like wanting breaks and working only eight hours a day.

If certain politicians and businesses had their way anyone over 60 that was not rich would just die. That is why they are trying to get rid of social security and medicare.

Leave no billionaire behind.

July 18 2011 at 7:31 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

When profits on items made in this country are taxed and the same profits on items made overseas by the same American company are not, where do you think the company will have the items made? Wanting to tax corporations is the same as wanting to pay more taxes yourself, because that is what will happen when the corporate tax is passed on as part of the cost of goods sold.

July 18 2011 at 7:28 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

As a person who is in the "older' category, I know I am being passed over for the younger workers out there. Although I can pass for someone in their 30's (without any plastic surgery, just good genes and a healthy lifestye) the employers want the younger people. I have been out of work for over 2 years and maybe, maybe get an interview once a year. A few months ago I had an interview with a major bank. Although I have over 15 years experience in the banking industry, 2 college degrees, guess what? The kid who sat next to me, all of 17 years old, just out of high school, no plans for college, no work experience, got the job. The companies do not want someone past 35-40 working for them. It is easier and cheaper to maintain a young person knowing(a) that person will not with the company for more than 2-3 years and thus they won't have to pay a retirement and (b) most young people will not go out on a medical leave and most young people do not have health concerns. Oh, and I almost forgot, unless you are a minority(which I am not), that counts against you too. So, get used to it. It is a young person's world out there. I just gave up looking for a job.

July 18 2011 at 7:20 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

I got layed off last year at age 61. I didn't have any greater problem finding a job equal to my previous one than did any of the younger guys who were layed off with me.

July 18 2011 at 7:13 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

This article couldn't be more true, except for that last sentence. Those companies are NOT hiring. Where have you been???

Those of us who have the experience are passed over for a "recent college grad" hire speak for "young." Employers must be okay with the learning curve with young workers. I hear many people my age are even offering to waive health insurance just to be hired. What is happening now is we have to take LOW paying jobs well beneath our level of expertise, IF you can't get one. What this does is to create a weakening of ones resume. When looking for a better/paying job your resume looks like "something happened." Since most cover letters, where you would explain why you took that "stop-gap" position, are never read, ones resume will most likely be tossed.

I myself, along with many, many others my age have applied for jobs at our level and beneath our level until we can no longer face not getting calls. Many of us will never be hired again and will reach Social Security age first. Hey, Congress take a look at THAT. We WANT to work, put off collecting Social Security but for many this will not be an option.

July 18 2011 at 7:01 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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