Dealing with age bias in the workplace

As any astute observer of, or participant in, the North American workplace will acknowledge, employers and hiring managers have some degree of age bias. We all do and it runs both ways: “The millennial is lazy; the baby boomer is tech illiterate” – sometimes these statements are cliché, other times legit.

That said, although the digitally native millennial may face skepticism or bias, her résumé will still be picked up and she won’t likely be overlooked because she’s young.

The cost of ageism is born much more by older candidates. And, according to a study conducted at Tulane University, it occurs earlier (age 50 vs. age 65) and more frequently with women.

So, what can an older female candidate do to remain relevant and employable?

Susan Rietano Davey, co-founder of Prepare to Launch U, has coached women in career transition for more than 20 years. Most of them are ‘returners’ – professionals who opted out of the workforce to raise children and, once those children are grown or independent, want to opt back in. Their average age hovers around 50, but many are older. Here is what she tells them:

Embrace your age and the advantages it brings. The workplace is multi-generational now. We are living longer and retiring later. For the first time in history, there are five generations working side by side, each with its unique and important role. If you are over 50, you bring stability and broad and varied experience; you offer perspective and decades of contacts. These advantages are your workplace currency. Increase your currency by recognizing and valuing the currency of colleagues at all points along the age continuum, and being eager and able to work with, and learn from them. Confidence can mask many things.Own your age; be confident in your currency, and show an employer how you are uniquely able to grow their business. 

Acknowledge and work hard to mitigate the disadvantages of your age. But don’t panic. As long as you are willing and interested in learning these new skills and modalities, you can. Continuing Education classes through your local high school or community college, and myriad online courses, offer convenient, affordable and effective ways for you to learn these essential skills and make your state of ‘unhirability’ only temporary.

Consider alternative routes to employment. Make no bones about it: older employees are more expensive than younger employees. If you seek work in a highly competitive field where youth is coveted and you’re feeling the “you are overqualified” – i.e. too expensive – vibe, you may want to give your employer the option to ease into hiring you. Offer yourself as a consultant for a defined project, or as interim help during a crunch period. By doing great work and building relationships you’ll prove yourself indispensable in this low-stakes temporary arrangement, paving the way for a higher-stakes permanent offer.

Lastly, don’t use ageism as an excuse. Employers hire people they believe will grow their businesses and enhance their company culture. If you can’t make a compelling case for how you will do that, it doesn’t matter if you’re 30 or 60 – you won’t get hired.

Susan Rietano Davey is co-founder of employment consulting firm, Prepare to Launch, LLC.