Defeating Ageism, Part 2: Is It Age Discrimination, Overqualification… Or Something Else?
It’s no question that ageism is a real problem in the workforce. However, it might not be the reason your applications aren’t getting anywhere. Here’s how to tell if you’re experiencing discrimination, or if it’s just time to refresh your job search strategy.
By: Ryan Thornton | Contributor for Let’s Eat, Grandma
This is Part 2 of our Defeating Ageism series. You can find Part 1 here.
A lack of experience is one of the most common reasons job-seekers are turned down. And yet, applicants with lots of experience are regularly passed over for folks newer on the job scene. What gives?
Sadly, the answer is often discrimination, plain and simple.
Except, age discrimination is anything but plain and simple. The practice being illegal, employers are quick to find indirect ways to express what they’re thinking about a candidate’s age. For example, in the tech industry, older age–especially in women – is sometimes wrongly associated with an antagonism towards new technologies. This is just one way that ageism manifests in unfair assumptions about job candidates.
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This slippery nature of age discrimination can make it tricky for older job seekers to identify. Have you been a victim of an illegal practice? Or, were you actually just not a great fit for a desired role? Let’s explore some of the ways to tell the difference.
In many cases, the best way to discover age discrimination in a job search is through a process of elimination. If you suspect ageism at play, don’t launch your legal retaliation just yet. You first need to rule out other weaknesses in your job strategy and application.
At a bare minimum, this means taking a fresh look at your resume and cover letter to see if anything there might need some work. Particularly, we’re looking for anything that might reflect the ways of days gone by. Every element of your application should signal that you’ve kept up with the times.
A good way to kick off this review is to follow these five steps of preventing age discrimination from happening in the first place. This will help in two ways: it will instantly take attention away from age and it will help you see what other variables may be getting in the way.
If, in the end, you really are up against age discrimination, these five steps will help you land an interview. At that point, you’ll be able to prove your value and dispel unwarranted doubts about your skills. Hooray! You’ve successfully defeated ageism in the job market. (One can dream!)
On the other hand, it may turn out that age discrimination is not your exact problem at the moment. Or, it may be only one of the obstacles you’re facing. In both cases, you’ll need to do some additional work to make sure your application is solid.
Getting Back to the Basics
Navigating the modern job market’s ever-fluctuating expectations can quickly make anyone’s head spin. Adding to that the possibility of discrimination of any kind can take the experience from disorienting to outright demoralizing.
However, it’s important to recognize that not all hiring managers will have it out for you based on your age. If you’ve found yourself dwelling in a pit of despair for longer than you’d like, allow me to recommend revisiting the bedrock of your job search. That is, of course, a great resume.
First of all, a resume is not a static document. It should be thoughtfully tailored to every individual job application you submit. If you’re already doing that, good on ya. Keep up the great work by following all of the best practices for a resume in 2021, including listing tangible accomplishments, optimizing use of each resume section, using active language, and putting it all together with a slick (not from a fancy template) design.
Overqualified and Brushed Aside
Sometimes, an older job-seeker’s application can be too stellar. I know, you can’t make this stuff up.
But here’s the thing: an employer isn’t looking to hire a stunning resume. They’re usually just looking to match the right person to the job, even if it means choosing the candidate with less experience.
There are lots of different reasons why hiring managers may be wary of candidates with decades of experience behind them. They may, for instance, assume that the candidate is expecting a salary in proportion to the expertise they bring to the table.
If it’s not an issue of money, hiring managers may wonder if the candidate would become bored with the job or end up feeling stuck in a role that doesn’t allow them to use their full skillset.
And then, of course, “overqualified” can also be code for “too old,” although age and qualifications do not always perfectly correlate.
If you’re applying for jobs where your experience far exceeds the preferred qualifications, there are a few things you can do to help your odds.
First of all, before spending your time on an application, give every job description a close read. You’ll want to pay special attention to the job responsibilities in order to first see if it seems like the right role for you. Then, if all of that sits well with you, then you’ll want to tailor your resume to highlight the elements of your experience that best align with the position.
Now comes the time to write the cover letter. This is your moment to explain why your depth of experience makes you the perfect person for the job. Don’t shy away from naming the elephant in the room; most hiring managers will want to know up front what interest you have in a lower-level position. You’ll need to show that you would take this role just as seriously as a less-experienced candidate with fewer options. (Plus, if you’re aiming for a lower position because you’re changing career paths, this is a perfect opportunity to use your cover letter to hammer home your transferable skills.)
Relationships, Old and New
If you’re facing age discrimination in your job search, chances are you have made some amazing friends and met some excellent professional connections along the way. Don’t let yourself be squeamish about using those relationships to your advantage! Likewise, don’t be shy when it comes to reaching out and forming new strategic friendships in your industry.
Networking does not have to feel like the icky art of commodifying relationships. It’s an incredibly useful practice for job seekers of all ages, but especially for those up against the threat of ageism. In the end, your two-dimensional resume is more likely to be discriminated against than you as a complete, unique individual. So the more you rely on relationships with people you actually know, the less vulnerable you’ll be
Ageism or Not, It’s All About Strategy
All job seekers need a strong, customized resume, a compelling cover letter, and an ever-expanding network of professional relationships in order to have success. This is no different for those who may be facing age discrimination in their job search. In fact, this unfair practice only makes these elements even more critical.
Fortunately, you now have a strategy in place. Double down on the five steps to avoiding age discrimination, spend some productive quality time with your resume, reframe your experience to dispel employers’ doubts, and get down to the business of networking.
Another tip for those who haven’t searched for work in several years: try not to rely too heavily on job boards. It’s a new era in which time is wisely spent reaching out to others on LinkedIn or over email.
Recall that a shocking percentage of job openings never make it into the public eye, which is great news for people with lots of connections and terrible news for people who are counting on an internet search to get them a job.
Finally, leverage the power of the internet and sites like LinkedIn to research companies and roles that interest you. The internet is a beautiful place with much to offer the job-seeker and cat video enthusiast alike. I also happen to be aware of a new Career Compass Bundle to help sort out the myriad details of landing a job in this day and age. That, too, can be found on the internet – on this very site, in fact. What a convenient coincidence!
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