Age Discrimination? Or Experience Discrimination?

With roughly 10% of Americans currently out of work, and a disproportionate number of these professionals just so happening to be Baby Boomers in the 46+ age bracket, it’s not surprising that the question of “age discrimination” is on a lot of peoples’ minds — and that many folks are worried about the impact such discrimination might have on their career prospects.

For those folks concerned about this issue, however, I’ve got a simple suggestion to make.  Ditch the “age discrimination” label entirely and switch to framing the phenomenon as “experience discrimination” instead.  Why?  Because I think this terminology is a lot closer to the reality of what’s taking place out there in the market — and will help you avoid falling into a dangerous, unproductive victim mentality.  Beyond a few unrepentant bigots, in other words, it’s not going to be your calendar age per se that bothers most hiring managers.  It’s going to be the number of years of experience you’ve amassed in your career to date and the employer’s fear that this much experience might mean 1) you want too much money; 2) you won’t be happy in a “lesser” job than you’ve held in the past; and 3) that you think you “know it all” and won’t be adaptable to new systems, processes, and ways of doing things.

Does anybody disagree with this assessment?  Does anybody truly think the primary reason older workers might have more trouble finding positions is because employers simply don’t like older people, in general?  Boy, I sure hope the world hasn’t come to this!  And it would take an awful lot of convincing for me to accept that this is the reality, versus holding to my contention that employers generally are worried about the consequences of having lots of experience, not age itself.

It’s a nuanced argument, for sure, but I believe reframing the concept in this fashion will help a lot of older, more experienced workers deal more effectively with this issue.  For starters, it provides immediate hope that we can overcome the obstacle in question, since while there’s not a single thing we can do about our age, aside from the occasional shot of Botox, we have infinitely more ability to take control over how we package, present, and explain our experience to employers.  Additionally, if we keep the discussion centered around our level of experience, and not age, we can proactively respond to an employer’s concerns without bringing the “A” word into the equation — and immediately raising the spectre of discrimination lawsuits.

My point-of-view on this issue was also borne out, anecdotally, at a recent professional networking event I attended.  When one attendee brought up the subject of age discrimination, expressing anger at the unfair bias he felt many employers displayed today against older candidates, one brave woman stood up and related the following story, in a nutshell:

While I hear what you’re saying, I don’t think this is really the case.  I’m 62 years old, myself, and recently had to hire my own replacement due to the fact that I was moving on to a new company.  We received hundreds of candidates in the application process and eventually narrowed the list down to two finalists.  One of the finalists was in her late fifties, while the second candidate was much younger and less experienced, at around 35 or so.  On paper, the older candidate had TONS more relevant experience and was clearly the obvious choice for us to bring on board.  And yet, after we conducted the series of interview rounds, every single person on the hiring team, including myself, agreed to extend the offer to the younger worker, instead.  Why?  Because the younger worker showed far more intellectual curiosity about the job, asked better questions, seemed to care about our needs more, and came across as much more interested and happy at the thought of doing this work for us.  The older candidate, on the other hand, seemed bored throughout the interview process and gave off the impression that she thought she already knew everything about our needs, was entitled to the job, and was hoping to just coast for a few more years into retirement.

Granted, not all older (aka more experienced) candidates have this mentality or give off these same impressions, but enough of them DO that it’s created a damaging stereotype you’ll have to take into account in your interview strategy, like it or not, if you have 20+ years of work history under your belt.  Again, though, it’s not an age thing.  It’s an experience thing.  Don’t let the employer form these kinds of impressions about you, right from the get-go.  Do your homework on the company.  Arrive full of energy and enthusiastic questions about the job.  Make sure your financial expectations are in line with current standards, not simply the number you’ve reached after 20-30 years of promotions, step-raises, and COLA increases.  And above all, demonstrate to the hiring manager, if they appear younger than you, that you fully respect their authority within the organization and aren’t discriminating against their youthfulness, in return!

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6 Responses to “Age Discrimination? Or Experience Discrimination?”

  1. Tracy: Thanks for your comment on this article I wrote a while back — and the main point I was trying to make in the piece (although you certainly don’t have to agree) is that while there is definitely a ton of age discrimination in the market today, which is shameful and something I witness the impact of every day, there are also cases where older workers don’t get hired not due to their age itself, but simply because they have far more experience than the job actually requires. In other words, if a company is seeking to hire a paralegal and an attorney with 20 years of experience applies, that person is certainly QUALIFIED for the job — but likely won’t get it, because the employer will feel they would be bored, unchallenged, and not likely to stick around long given that the role is so far beneath the level they’ve been working at, historically. Is that age discrimination? Or a legitimate case where a company feels somebody is overqualified? Ultimately, I agree with almost everything you said about employers being too eager these days to hire cheap labor — and that they might eventually pay the price for this — but in a case like the one I cited above, I’m not sure it can be blamed purely on age. That’s the distinction I was trying to draw here…

  2. It’s interesting that this article talks of how to overcome the discrimination one may be experiencing during their employment search by referring to our experience and not our age during the interview. Perhaps I have misunderstood, but isn’t the article basing its premise on the notion that our experience IS what is keeping us from being hired in the first place? I simply do not agree with this whole concept. The truth of the matter is, that as older individuals who have lots of relevant experience, we do indeed expect to be paid for our abilities, and our abilities do stem from our cumulative experience. As one poster stated above, companies are expecting to hire younger folk, for less money, but with the same level of (cumulative) experience as that older person they refuse to interview. Plainly, companies are cheaping out and demanding something for nothing. In my estimation, there is a cycle here that has not been fully played out. I personally can guarantee, these same companies are spending far more in the long run by hiring inexperienced younger folks who can talk up a good story in an interview but can’t deliver the goods. And further to the point the article makes about experience, it’s the experience that keeps us from the interview. The writer has assumed the person with the experience will get the interview, and it is our contention as older workers, that the opposite is true. The LAST thing I would do in an interview is talk about my age, who does that?

  3. clyde mitchell May 26, 2016 at 5:25 am

    Bottom line discrimnation is illegal and needs to address as such….older people have needs and feelings also….everyone should be able to insure he are she can make a living and not be evaluated base on age. What should a older person do that still has responsibilities to his family. He has no control over aging and we could create and enforce age discrimination. Age idealology is base on asininities not logic, hypothesis not fact….It so sad when actually justify injustice…when we learn

  4. @Tom – the problem is the companies can’t afford to pay for 30+ years of experience so they hack off everyone and replace them with people with no or little experience. It’s going to bite them in the end though!

  5. I see companys advertise for Hr people who have Labor relations/employee relations experience, union avoidance and mediation and dispute resolution experience , as well as union prevention and management of counter union campaings
    They want a 40, year old HR generalist who has all these qualities and levels of experience for less than 100k.

    Guess what, A 40 year old HR practicioner has never been exposed to this and is not likely to ever have the experience. The people who have this background are Old folks like me who grew up in the Labor trenches of the 70-80’s We have the experience, can do the job, but are rejected because of age. Where are therse people coming from. Where do you get 40 years of labor at age 35?

    There is something sick about companies and hiring today. It’s just not the Hr role I’ve laid out above, it’s all managerial jobs. The specs require 30 + years experience and the company wants a 30 year old for the position. Something wrong with this picture.

    There are people out there who are n their 50’s -60’s and above who can walk in, hit the ground running and contribute. We all have gray hair. We all have a tremendous work ethic and company loyalty. why don’t employers want us?

  6. I agree whole heartedly with this post. As a recruiter I speak with a lot of candidates and employers every day. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion of age discrimination and when the hiring manager has less experience to assume that they were threatened by the experienced candidate. I have recently seen two 55+ candidates land mid-level positions and both were mid-level candidates due to career changes made 10 years ago. In both situations, companies were thrilled to have some life experience and this made them desirable candidates. They were at the desired experience level. What I would add to Matt’s great post is that there are two common situations I have seen in decisions 1. companies are afraid to “over hire” for the role because when the market improves, the person they have invested in will leave and 2. candidates who have been in strategic high level positions have not been hands-on in awhile or maintained their technical skills (“the people who worked for me did that”). In these situations, candidates need to put themselves in the shoes of the person doing the hiring and be prepared to address these concerns which are valid.

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