by Susan Jepson
If you are an older worker who has been unemployed for more than six months, you are likely feeling the pain in your confidence, your psyche, your wallet, your relationships, and your sense of yourself as a productive, contributing member of a profession and/or society.
It may be tempting to pin your unemployment status on age discrimination. Job-hunters tell me all of the time, “They don’t want to hire older people” or “There is too much age discrimination,” or some variation of why they have not yet been successful in their job hunt. In 12 years of management in programs for older workers, I don’t doubt the existence of discrimination because of age. Or because of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, or physical appearance. People discriminate, and while laws and legal rights exist, it is almost impossible to eradicate discriminatory behavior.
I have also learned, however, that what I call reverse age discrimination, or reverse age bias, may derail the mature worker in the job hunt. In addition to age bias, older job-hunters can sometimes think themselves exempt from certain requirements because of their age. They can be guilty of failure to make the effort to “skill up” and behave appropriately in the job hunt. Too often I think we assume that we are doing everything “right,” so the only reason for lack of success has got to be age discrimination, right?
Before you accuse me of heresy, let me explain. These are some of the things I have witnessed firsthand.
1. Discrimination against younger interviewers and younger colleagues.
Older workers can make assumptions about younger interviewers and younger workers. We may think they don’t understand, don’t know as much, or have not yet had the experience to judge. How can these assumptions not affect behavior in an interview? I recently had a job-hunter tell me directly that her interviewer, (a school principal) did not know as well as she (the job-hunter) knew about what worked in a classroom and could not adequately judge the job-hunter’s qualifications. If that attitude leaked out in the interview, I am not surprised she did not get invited back.
Without intending to, or without knowing it, mature workers can come across as arrogant, condescending; that behavior can invite rejection. Examine your beliefs and assumptions and work hard to be open and communicative with your interviewer, without prejudice of any kind.
2. A belief that technology skills, including social-media and computer skills, are unnecessary.
While most people I have worked with try very hard to develop their technology skills, some job-hunters decide that because of their age, they do not need to have computer skills. “I never needed them before and I always got a job,” is a comment I hear often enough. There is simply no way around the need to be computer-savvy, and technology skills are essential. Job-hunters often tell me they feel dumb in computer classes, that they can’t keep up, or that they just don’t “get it,” even though they have tried. Fortunately, many options for learning are available, and senior centers and libraries may have some great suggestions for you in your community. And the situation is changing — finally, the greatest growth in social network and Web uses is coming from older generations in the United States. (Karen Mesiter and Karie Willyerds, The 2020 Workplace, Harper Collins, 2010).
3. A belief that the same old job-hunting techniques will work this time around, or as often happens, real lack of understanding about how to look for a job today.
People struggle on their own, trying to make something happen, and fail over and over. Their response often is to do more of the same, thinking that a different result with follow. It’s a different world, but plenty of help is available at your nearest One Stop Career Center. More and more, help is also available at the public library and the senior center. Don’t hesitate to reach out and ask for assistance.
Final Thoughts on Age Diversity in the Workplace
In some companies, we now see four generations of workers in the workplace, and the diversity in age and experience can bring exciting new opportunities for everyone. Companies need and want workers who can produce, can work in teams, and who are able to keep up with new processes and ways of doing business. With self-awareness, willingness to stretch and develop, and appreciation for the diversity of the workplace, mature workers will get hired and contribute after they are hired.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Susan Jepson, director of the National Senior Network, has more than 30 years of work experience in workforce development and career counseling. She was a key member of the work group that started the first One-Stop Career Center in Boston in 1995, Boston Career Link. In 2003, she began focusing on older workers with the Senior Community Service Employment Program through a grant funded by the National Able Network. In 2009, Susan became the State Director for the National Senior Network, SCSEP (Senior Community Service Employment Program), a division of the National Able Network, and focuses on helping workers age 55 and over find employment. She has an undergraduate degree from the University of Connecticut and a Master of Science in counselor education from Suffolk University and is currently working on a Master of Science in regional economics and social development at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.