Thinking of Changing Careers? Here’s how to respond to ageism in the Workplace

Two out of three workers 45 and older have experienced age discrimination in the workplace. What does that mean if you’re looking for a new career?

Age may be just a number for some aspects of life, but in recruitment, it’s a number that looks more like a countdown clock to when you’ll be considered “too old” to work. I hear over and over from job seekers who attest that age discrimination is alive and well. In fact, it appears to be baked into the recruitment process to the point that even hinting at your age is enough to put your CV on the ‘no’ pile.

What then are those in a midlife career transition supposed to do?

Ageism at work — how widespread is it?

Ageism is so entrenched in the workplace that it’s now become normalised. A recent AARP study found nearly two-thirds of workers 45 and older have experienced age discrimination at work — and the bias only grew during the pandemic.

Research from the New School Retirement Equity Lab shows that older workers (age 55+) lost jobs faster and returned to work more slowly than their younger peers (age 35–54). “If older workers’ rate of job loss were as low as mid-career workers, roughly 1 million older workers would still have their jobs,” the report states.

Not much is different across the Asia Pacific Region.

In Hong Kong 34% of job seekers (age 50++) noted they did not meet job requirements due to their age.

In Singapore “57% feel there will be fewer training opportunities….” ADP’s global workforce research found, one in five (17%) Singaporeans experience age discrimination in their workplace.

In China, potential employees start feeling ageism at 35! According to the SCMP, “Most advertisements for jobs with Chinese tech giants — where the “age 35 phenomenon” is most pervasive — do not list age restrictions, but recruitment for the civil service is explicitly restricted to those younger than 35.”

In Japan, age 35 was once thought to be the cutoff for making a career change with a lifetime employment system contributing to stable employment for the long term. But this system is coming under strain, recently, businesses have launched campaigns to attract mid-career women back into the workplace. At the end of 2021, Japan has seen a “ 2.7 fold increase in the number of people registering with agencies specializing in placing older workers.”

For those in their fifties or sixties, mentioning one’s age is akin to waving a big red flag that reads “REJECT ME.” A study by Northwestern University found when resume reviewers were shown two resumes side-by-side — one with an obvious age marker such as a graduation date, and one without — the latter was significantly more likely to be chosen. And a 2019 British study showed that a 50-year-old job applicant was three times less likely to get an interview as opposed to a 28-year-old applicant, even though the 50 year old had more relevant experience.

This is demoralizing news for job seekers over 50. It’s especially frustrating to learn the preference for younger employees is based on outdated stereotypes and assumptions rather than actual workplace abilities.

Ageism: an acceptable bias?

When applying for a job, there’s no obligation to disclose age or put age-related indicators on a CV. Even if you do disclose this information, there are laws in place to protect you from discrimination based on age. So why do so many older candidates seldom get a callback?

It’s largely because candidate selection is based on assumptions. Hiring managers don’t have time to read every application and often go with their gut about who would be a “good fit” for the company. Those unconscious feelings are often based on some deep-seated prejudices that older workers have low energy or won’t fit into a progressive office dynamic.

These prejudices don’t have to be true to make an impact.

There’s an abundance of data showing that most of our assumptions about older workers are completely wrong. For example, the assumption of decreasing energy levels. According to the London Business School, 43% of workers under 45 said they were exhausted, compared to just 35% of those over 45. Those over 60 were the least exhausted.

Rather than taking the easy road until retirement, older workers often have a stronger work ethic, greater loyalty to their employers, and are happier in their jobs than their younger coworkers.

Why the bias against older workers?

In part, it’s a bit of a Catch-22. If employers are biased against older workers, they’re obviously less likely to hire them, so the lack of older workers means the stereotypes go unchallenged. In addition, many people still believe it’s okay for employers to discriminate based on age. It’s often assumed older individuals have already had their fill, so now it’s time to make room for a younger group to have their shot at success.

What can job seekers do?

If you’re feeling the pinch of ageism, here are some thoughts to help minimize the sting:

Make it hard for recruiters to do the math: Consider ‘age-proofing’ your CV , removing information that could allow recruiters determine your age, omitting graduation dates or leaving out the earliest parts of your career. However, take care not to downplay your accomplishments. The goal is to get past the recruiter’s 15-second CV review and not to bury your successes.

Lead with passion over experience. Show energy and enthusiasm for the opportunity to head off any assumptions that you’re looking to tide yourself over until retirement. Mature career transitioners focus on their experience, but that can intimidate an inexperienced hiring manager. Instead, direct the conversation towards new ideas you’ll bring to the role. How does this role complement your passion? What makes this the work you clearly have a gift for?

Change the power dynamic. Be curious, show a learning or consultative mindset which can elevate you from ‘needing’ the job to someone who can visibly contribute to the organisation. If you’re not sure how to go about this, do some inner work with a career counselor to better understand the value you bring to the workplace and how to package it with more impact.

Reframe any biases. If an employer believes their company extols a “younger culture,” reframe their bias towards “if you embrace innovative thinking, I have XYZ ideas that I believe are worth some exploration. What do you think?”

If they’re concerned that you may be one of the older workers, give examples of projects where you harnessed the power of people’s different experiences. This is to show you can collaborate with a diverse mix of people and be a role model of inclusion, innovation and collaboration.

Network, network, network: In our digital world, it’s easy to forget the value of face-to-face interactions. Get out and meet new people, especially the decision-makers in your field. Attend professional events, introduce yourself to new contacts, and yes, ask for advice. Opportunities come from those you know, so it’s important to keep those connections alive.

Summing up

Age-related bias is a problem that won’t go away anytime soon, but don’t let it stop you from going after the job or career you want. Age bias exists, just don’t become a victim. You’re not too old; you’re experienced, you’re enthusiastic, and you’re finally pursuing opportunities that matter most to you in the later stages of work.

That’s exactly what many employers are looking for; employees that understand who they are and what their genius is. We all have it. And at a certain stage of life, we know who we are and what we can deliver.

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Looking for what’s next? We’ll help you find it — join Career Extensions wait list for a six week an intensive, reflective, creative, experience. We offer you the space to think and a structured process to uncover what’s next on your career horizon.

Jane Horan, EdD and Rob Delange partner with organizations and individuals to navigate career transitions. Experienced facilitators, coaches, and consultants in every aspect of leadership and career development, and execution. .

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