Even in a hot hiring market, it is tough for workers over 50 to stay competitive in workplaces that often value youth over experience.
The pandemic has been especially hard on older employees seeking to reclaim jobs lost in the early days of lockdowns. Many say they fear that the workplace upheaval brought on by Covid-19 has reinforced some bosses’ belief that professionals in their 50s and beyond are less inclined to return to offices or adapt to new ways of working.
Workers over 50 haven’t joined the jobs recovery to the same degree as younger peers, not counting the millions who retired early during the past two years. In January, nearly one-third of job seekers age 55 and older were part of the long-term unemployed, according to federal data, compared with 21.8% of those between 16 and 54.
It is perhaps little surprise that in the AARP’s most recent survey, 78% of workers between 40 and 65 said they had seen age discrimination in 2020, the highest share since the advocacy group began tracking the question in 2003.
Professionals who have kept careers progressing well into their fourth and fifth working decades say they have developed a few strategies.
Tackle age discrimination head on
Rule No. 1, they say: Confront the reality of age discrimination head on instead of avoiding it. Some say they are doing so by appearing youthful—both in person, for hiring managers and colleagues, and in writing, to the bots that screen résumés. Others are pitching themselves as indispensable mentors to younger colleagues.
“You have to never give up,” said
Jennifer Kay Rouse,
who at 61 started a new job this month as a customer-success manager after losing her sales-account-manager position in a corporate acquisition last year.
Ageism persists as one of the most insidious forms of on-the-job discrimination, according to academic research and employment experts. In a 2021 study, researchers at New York and Stanford universities found people who opposed racism and sexism at work were still likely to harbor prejudices against older employees and to believe such workers should step aside for younger colleagues.
Meanwhile, many job postings appear to target younger job seekers with terms such as “digital native” or “recent grad,” and employers focus recruiting efforts on rising talent rather than on proven veterans.
This month, unsealed court documents in an age-discrimination case cited emails in which an executive at
International Business Machines Corp.
referred to older workers as “dinobabies” and a plan to make them an “extinct species.” An IBM spokesman said “some language in emails between former IBM executives that has been reported is not consistent with the respect IBM has for its employees and as the facts clearly show, it does not reflect company practices or policies.”
Punch up your résumé
Ms. Rouse of Waukesha, Wis., says that asking a job interviewer for constructive advice and punching up her résumé with language such as “solid reputation” and “high performer” helped her land her new job at an industrial automation company.
Ms. Rouse maintains a youthful look by staying fit and wearing what she described as an “edgy” haircut with hair on the back and side shaved underneath the top layer. After landing several interviews but not the jobs, she asked an interviewer to level with her “to satisfy my curiosity as to whether it is about age,” she said.
The interviewer didn’t address her age directly but suggested her lengthy experience might make some interviewers assume she had come in with a know-it-all attitude. So she tweaked her approach, emphasizing in interviews that she was a team player. And she acknowledged being older to make the point that she could mentor younger colleagues and was open to being mentored by them, too.
A résumé writer she found on LinkedIn for $125 also helped refresh hers with a more modern format and buzzy phrases, such as “exceptional customer relationships,” which she said yielded more bites from employers. Ms. Rouse now earns more in her new job than she did in her previous role.
“I love business, and I love strategizing to give customers the best outcomes,” she said. “I wasn’t ready to give all of that up.”
Evade the job applicant-screening bots
Employers can’t legally reject applicants based on their age, but ageism can arise subtly in job postings and the algorithms that screen them. Applicant-screening software can potentially filter out older workers whose résumés show lengthy employment gaps. Other details can also date candidates, such as WordPerfect proficiency or an AOL email account, career coaches and recruiters say.
Laid off in 2018 from a middle-management role in delivery and logistics at the company where he had worked for 17 years, 56-year-old
said he was prepared for the algorithms that would likely screen his résumé. Instead of “17 years,” for instance, he wrote “over 10 years.”
“I had to be very conscious about what I put in and time frames to get past the bots and AI,” said Mr. Johnston, who lives in Bellingham, Wash. “I wasn’t lying. I just wasn’t disclosing the full age.”
He also kept his hair closely cropped while interviewing, because it looks more gray when it’s longer, he said. After landing a job as an analyst with a municipality in 2019, then losing it to cost-cutting a year later, he used the same tactics to apply for a job as an operations manager for a logistics-transportation company, where he works today.
Position yourself as a mentor
a San Francisco career coach and recruiter, advises clients that it is better to delete early years of work experience from your résumé if they mostly date you.
“If your total work experience is over 25 years but your last 15 is most relevant to the new opportunities you are seeking, you can focus on the newer timeline,” she said.
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The key, employment experts say, is putting the focus on your talents, not your age. “Employers value wisdom, so it’s important to emphasize what you’ve learned and what you’re good at, not the amount of time you spent in the labor force,” said
Richard W. Johnson,
director of the program on retirement policy at the Urban Institute.
retired at 62 from his job as chief information officer at KPMG US in early 2018 but jumped back into the workforce a couple months later by repositioning himself as a mentor.
During what would be a brief retirement, he had let his network know he remained open to new ventures and helping coach at another company. A friend soon approached him with an opportunity as global chief information officer at
Zoom Video Communications Inc.
Mr. Moseley hadn’t thought he wanted to return to a full-time role, but the position excited him.
“It could be a lot of fun, and I felt like I could help,” he said.
At Zoom since March 2018 and working mostly from the New York area, where he lives, the now 66-year-old Mr. Moseley said he makes a point of not appearing resistant to change. “You kind of have to say, ‘OK, well, that’s how I used to do things,’ and you have to have an open mind and look at things in a different way,” he said.
At the same time, he uses his experience to guide colleagues. “I am who I am. Take me for who I am,” he said.
Write to Ray A. Smith at [email protected]
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