Career Advice for the Smart Job Seeker
Insights on elevating your resume, job search and personal growth
Overcoming Age Bias in the Job Market
Strategies for “Older” Job Seekers to Land an Interview
Are you worried about, or have you ever experienced, age bias when looking for a job?
At some point in your career, you may start to wonder if those lack of interviews are due to age discrimination. Age discrimination or bias refers to prejudice individuals may face during the hiring process due to their age. While ‘too old’ is a relative term, it typically refers to job seekers age 40+.
Although a lot of recruiters deny they consciously discriminate based on age, there does seem to be plenty of anecdotal and statistical smoke to the fire.
A recent study by career training non-profit organization Generation, for example, discovered that anywhere between 40% - 70% of long-term unemployed professionals (out of work for >1 year) are aged 45 and older.
Another study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco tested the response to 40,000 dummy job applications. Despite similar qualifications, resumes representing those aged 64-65 got 35% fewer callbacks than those aged 29-31.
What does age bias look like in the recruitment process?
Age discrimination in the workplace is not directly based on one’s age as such, but rather the perceived cons of hiring someone of a certain age.
This attitude is a hangover from a time when people tended to stay at the same company for the long-term (if not for life). If an organization was going to invest in someone, they wanted to ensure a long-term ROI. The older the hire, the less ROI in theory.
However, we still see this attitude playing out today, despite job hopping every 2-3 years being quite common.
Age discrimination is most prevalent during the resume assessment stage, when the recruiter is looking for ideal candidates. It can also happen during the interview stage as well, especially when making a final decision about which candidate to offer the job to.
But first, if we want to tackle these perceptions, we must first look at the reasons for age bias through a recruiter’s eyes:
Stereotypes and assumptions: There are widespread stereotypes and assumptions about ‘older workers’, such as being less adaptable to change, resistant to new technologies, or lacking energy and ambition. These biases can lead recruiters to overlook or undervalue the skills and experiences that more seasoned candidates bring to the table
Perception of productivity and potential: Some employers may believe that younger candidates are more productive or have greater potential for growth and development compared to older peers. This bias can lead to a preference for younger candidates, particularly for positions requiring long-term commitment or career progression
Cultural emphasis on youthfulness: Society often place a strong emphasis on youthfulness, associating it with vitality, innovation, and modernity. As such, older candidates may be seen as less desirable, even though they may possess the extensive knowledge, expertise, and stability the company needs
Cost considerations: Hiring managers may perceive older workers as being more expensive due to higher salary expectations, increased benefits, or potential healthcare costs. This financial concern can influence recruitment decisions, favoring younger candidates who are often viewed as more cost-effective
Technological proficiency: The rapid pace of technical innovations can create a perception that older individuals may struggle to adapt to new tools and platforms (we’ve all got our favourite joke about a parent or grandparent and their lack of technical skills). This assumption can lead to age bias, particularly in industries that heavily rely on technology or digital skills
Workplace dynamics and team cohesion: Some hiring managers may believe that older candidates may not integrate as well into a predominantly young workforce or might have difficulties collaborating with younger colleagues. This perception can therefore lead to age bias, favoring younger candidates who are seen as a better social and cultural fit for the team
Unconscious bias: Recruiters, like all individuals, can possess unconscious biases based on age. These may lead to unintentional discrimination during the recruitment process, where older candidates are systematically disadvantaged due to implicit assumptions or preferences
7 tips for job seekers to protect themselves against age bias
1 Remove earlier experiences from your resume
These days, resumes tend to focus on specific areas of someone’s expertise, particular as career pivots are so common. Older work can take advantage of this trend to lop off earlier experiences, thus placing emphasis on more recent experience. This gives the impression of a ‘younger’ job seeker, while not detracting in any way from your actual experience. A good rule of thumb is to go back no further than 10-15 years (and you can safely remove job descriptions for jobs going back 7-10 years, if you’ve held a few roles in that period).
2 Remove graduation years from any degrees or professional qualifications
What’s important here is the knowledge you gained, not when. It’s common practice to remove the graduation year to avoid the qualification (and thus the individual) becoming dated in the hiring company’s eyes.
3 Don’t mention your marital or parental status in your resume or cover letter
This one goes almost without saying, but in many countries these days it’s highly advised to not mention your marital or parental status in your application documents. Although anti-discrimination legislation can be fairly robust, it is still a good idea to avoid potential discrimination related to age, gender, family status, sexual orientation, and so on by not referring to these in your resume or cover letter (unless it’s specifically related to the job).
4 Update your job title
Occasionally, we may have outdated job titles in our resume. For example, Y2K Technician (an IT person involved in upgrading computer software ahead of the Year 2000 bug). These can be age give-aways. Instead, modernize the title to avoid any potential discrimination (e.g. Software Programmer).
5 Use an ATS-friendly resume template
Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) have become hugely common in recruitment over the past 15 years. These tend to favor a clean, simple, single-column resume style to avoid parsing errors. Younger job seekers seem more aware of these than older job seekers, hence why the latter may use an older resume style and attract potential age bias. While creative resumes are also becoming popular, these aren’t always ATS friendly (and not everyone has good taste in template style). We recommend avoiding these as well.
6 Use a modern font
Unless you’re in academia or publishing, Times New Roman screams 1990s. Stick with a clean, modern font such as Calibri or Arial to avoid giving an old-fashioned impression.
7 Remove obsolete knowledge from your resume
This one’s self-explanatory. While you may have been brilliant at Microsoft FrontPage or Lotus Notes, including obsolete skills in your resume will instantly date your resume. Check your listed technology and other skills and remove anything that is no longer used.
While it’s not always possible to avoid age discrimination when you’re looking for a job, there are several things you can do to minimize it (although, it might be argued that a company which discriminates against you based on age is a major red flag, and is doing you a favor if they do show bias towards your application).
- Age bias is where ‘older’ workers (generally, those aged 40+) are unfavourably considered in the recruitment process compared to younger workers
- Age discrimination is often based on outdated stereotypes and assumptions from a time when people worked for the same company for life, and were seen through the lens of long-term ROI
- Age bias in the recruitment process can be conscious or unconscious. Recruiters may not even be aware that they’re doing it
- While it’s not possible to avoid age bias entirely, there are several tactics you can use to minimize it in your application. For example, remove earlier experience (>10-15 years) and graduation years, don’t mention family status, give modern job titles, use an ATS-friendly style and modern font, and don’t include obsolete skills
- If you choose not to adapt your application to avoid age discrimination, some job seekers deliberately use this as a red flag screening too: if a company discriminates, the job seeker avoids working for a company that participates in these practices