As any astute observer of, or participant in, the 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.
But that’s not true for her mother or aunt because the cost of ageism is born much more by older candidates. And, according to a rather disconcerting (to this over 50 mom) 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?
I have a few simple strategies that I share with clients. Here they are:
1 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 (no more school snow days) and broad and varied experience; you offer perspective (from working through different economic times and in a variety of roles and companies), 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 his or her business.
2 Acknowledge and work hard to mitigate the disadvantages of your age (real or perceived). If you are a marketing strategist with no knowledge of digital media marketing, you won’t likely be hired. If you are an engineer unfamiliar with SQL or advanced Excel, you won’t likely be hired. If you are a sales executive uncomfortable using LinkedIn or working your territory through digital means like Salesforce, you won’t likely be hired. 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, effective, affordable (and sometimes even free) ways for you to learn these essential skills and make your state of ‘unhirability’ only temporary.
3 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 (e.g. technology, client services, advertising) 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 an hourly or per diem consultant for a defined project, or as interim help during a crunch period. Consider a low-paying internship where you can learn on the job without a lot of pressure. By doing great work and building relationships within the organization, you’ll prove yourself indispensable in this low-stakes temporary arrangement, paving the way for a higher-stakes permanent one. Over my 2+ decades in the placement field, my partners and I estimated that 60-70% of the women-returners we placed in temporary positions were ultimately hired.
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.