How To Beat Age Bias In Your Job Search: 4 Techniques

For the first time in nearly 50 years in the U.S., the unemployment rate for 55-and-older workers exceeded the rate for mid-career workers during the pandemic. The relative jump in this rate underscores the age-related challenges that older workers face in getting hired. If you fall into this group, there’s good news: you can usually overcome age-related barriers to being hired relatively easily.

To do so, understand this key insight: you’re usually not facing age-bias per se. Rather, you’re facing underlying issues that employers think about when they compare you to the younger competition. These issues include:

  • You’re not as motivated to give it your all; you’re coasting until retirement
  • You won’t fit in; you’ll be uncomfortable reporting to someone much younger than you
  • A younger employee can be paid less
  • Your skills are not as cutting-edge as those of someone younger
  • You’re a short-term hire because you’ll want to retire soon

Here’s how to easily address these potential objections to your candidacy (and by the way, these tips are useful for job-seekers of any age).

Show Your Enthusiasm: You can overcome the first three objections around motivation, fit and pay by proactively showing your enthusiasm for the role, and for the prospective employer, in every communication. For example, here’s what my 61 year old client said when she was interviewed by the much younger person she would work for and he asked her “So why did you leave your last employer?”

“I had a good five year run at the company, they liked me, I liked them, and I really helped them over the years. But others were being let go and I had the opportunity to take a package, so I took it. And I’m glad I did because I’m excited to be talking with you. What you’re looking for is exactly what I want for my next act. I understand you’re seeking to expand into Latin America. With my experience there I could help you to jump-start that expansion. In addition, I’ve picked up on your employees’ enthusiasm for YourCo’s positive, collaborative culture from reading online reviews and talking with my colleague who works here. This is just the kind of environment I’m looking to work in for years to come. And I wanted to ask you more about how I can best help you with your….”

Let’s analyze what my client’s response accomplished. The truth was that she was let go and wasn’t happy about it, and also didn’t get along with her prior boss. But she didn’t mention these aspects of her departure because the negativity would hurt her prospects; she would never have gotten an offer. Instead, she briefly described her reason for leaving while emphasizing the positive in her experience, and then pivoted to the three things her interviewer really cares about: how she can help, her motivation and whether she’ll fit in.

In pivoting to the things her interviewer cares about, she chose her words carefully: “I’m excited to be talking with you…,” “how I can best help you…,” “I could help you…” Her frequent use of “you” and “help you” serves to overcome the interviewer’s concerns that my client would not feel comfortable working for someone 20 years her junior, and underscores that the age difference will not be an issue. So use words like ‘you’ and ‘your’ in your answers, and keep reminding them how you can help them personally.

Also note that she was very specific about the reasons for her motivation to work for the interviewer’s company. Being specific conveys sincerity and credibility. You do not want to give generic responses like “Your company is great” without explaining why.

Finally, by emphasizing her strong motivation to help the interviewer and the organization, she reduces the centrality of compensation concerns in the conversation.

Make it clear that you’re looking for something long term: They may be thinking that you’ll retire soon, so you are only a short-term hire. If you think this might be an issue, mention in your conversations or emails that you are looking for a long-term opportunity. In the case of my client, she included in her response “This is just the kind of environment I’m looking to work in for years to come.”

Be perceived as cutting edge: Older job-seekers are too often perceived as not having skills or interests that are attuned to the latest trends or innovations versus younger job-seekers. Take a three-pronged approach to addressing this issue:

  • Fill any relevant gaps. For example, another 55+ client was an old-school marketing VP, looking for his next role. He really wasn’t well versed in the latest digital marketing approaches, including social media marketing. So he took a class and conducted some additional research. Now he could say he had experience in digital marketing because of the class project he completed and the knowledge he gained.
  • Look for ways to demonstrate that you’re up-to-date. This same client wrote an article on LinkedIn about social media marketing best practices that received great feedback. He linked to this article in his email correspondence and received at least one interview because of it. So consider creating an example of your cutting-edge knowledge somewhere online (LinkedIn article, blog post, website).
  • Demonstrate your expertise through your insightful questions. For example, in an interview this client asked “Have you tried using LinkedIn Sales Navigator in sourcing new business development opportunities?”

Lastly, look to turn your age into a strength, by emphasizing how the years of experience you’ve gained gives you an edge in helping them over your younger competition.

What if they ask me how old I am? While not technically illegal, this question is inappropriate as it implies they are making a decision based on your age – which is in fact illegal. Nevertheless you may occasionally get this question. Like any inappropriate or illegal interview question you receive, focus your answer on addressing their underlying issue without feeling you have to give them the literal answer. For example, you could say something like: “Old enough to have the experience that will help you, and young enough to provide the energy and motivation you need for years to come.”