||Too Old to Rock & Roll?
By Nick Corcodilos
A few years ago I participated in a series of
workshops conducted by a computer company that was concerned about how to deal with the
"disabled" market. That is, with people who have a handicap, limitation,
well, no one at the meeting was comfortable with any of those words. What
made it especially urgent for some of us to find the right words was the presence of
people who were, well, they were one of these words.
We all got our discomfort handed to us on a platter by
one of the attendees. He was in a wheelchair, having lost the use of his legs in a car
accident many years before.
"You dont need to call me anything," he
said. "All you need to be aware of is what I call you."
Ah, some of us thought, cringing: a militant guy
in a wheelchair. This will be a fun three days.
"Youre all TABs," he went on calmly
and without a touch of rancor in his voice. "Temporarily Able-Bodied."
Long silence. It sank in the way the punchline of a
particularly good ethnic joke sinks in when you realize its about your own ethnic
group, and that its true.
Realizing we were TABs was very sobering. I
pictured myself getting hit by a car while crossing the street. Or slipping off a ladder.
Or getting mugged. Or being in a plane crash. Or flipping my ten-speed on a steep downhill
run. Or breaking my hip at my 70th birthday party.
Or just getting old.
These are some of the subjects of email Ive gotten in the years I've been
producing Ask The Headhunter:
- "Age And Expertise Discrimination"
- "Older Workers"
- "Endangered Species"
- "Midlife Career Change"
- "Age vs. Opportunity"
- "After 50 Career Advice"
Age is a hot topic when it comes to job search and
hiring. If you havent thought about it yet, its because youre a TY. Temporarily
Young. I figure the chances that Ill get old are, oh, at least a little better
than slipping on the ice in San Diego and breaking my back. So its time to talk
Whats inspired me to cover the subject here
(Ive tackled it in workshops and when coaching clients) were some comments from an
older reader that reminded me of the wheelchair-bound guy at that meeting. And it led me
to invent the term "TYs". Heres what that reader, James, had to say.
"I'm surprised that my age and experience seem to
scare potential employers rather than excite them. It would seem to me that being able to
employ someone who has the capability to cover an entire project from beginning to end
would be something that an aggressive corporation would jump at. Instead, they use the
term overqualified. This, when translated to English, must mean one or more of
- You are too old, but we can't really say that to you.
- We know we can't pay you enough to stay for long.
- The manager who interviewed you is worried about his own job security."
I frequently hear from readers who are upset about
James first point above. But it occurred to me that this was the first time
Ive heard anyone spit it out clearly: there are other issues relating to age that
reveal the complexity of the problem.
Naming the beast
We all know this is what employers are thinking, but no one wants to talk about it.
Indeed, many aspects of this issue pose legal risks to an employer. They certainly pose
risks to your career.
But, like it or not, the three objections James refers to
are part of a collection of issues that concern employers. By naming them, I think James
is facing and trying to deal with them. If you sit back and worry and complain about the
problem, youre going to suffer. If you tackle it head-on, you can teach an employer
the value of a candid interview and the value you represent. If youre an
employer, you may be contributing to the problem, either because youre dismissing
older applicants or because you havent found ways to deal frankly with age-related
matters that concern you.
Of course, you can also take legal action if youve
been discriminated against. But thats another discussion and Im not going to
get into it here. Were certainly not going to resolve the age issue in this column,
especially not on a legal level. Still, there will be readers who will take offense at my
approach to this, because my comments will be pragmatic rather than philosophical or
The only point of view youll find me supporting is
this: employers should benefit from the people they hire, and workers should be able to
win the jobs they can do. (By "workers" I mean just about anyone: staff,
managers, executives.) I think problems arise when the two parties fail to talk frankly
with one another about these two fundamental points. Companies might avoid hiring older
workers for fear that they wont get the benefits they expect, but theyll never
say that. These same companies are depriving themselves of the benefits a seasoned worker
can bring them. Older workers, on the other hand, might be carrying around baggage from
discrimination theyve faced and that can turn an otherwise upstanding
employer off. These people may unwittingly foster the attitude theyre trying to
We all face concerns others have about our age. It
happens when were young and it happens when were old. If we hide behind our
own wishful thinking, behind the law, or behind our fear of a useful dialogue, were
cooked. If we pretend its the other guys problem, then were causing half
the problem ourselves. But, its not just employers who can walk around with an
attitude; job hunters can, too.
My purpose here is to try and start a dialogue on the
subject, and to include both employees and employers. I welcome your comments, experiences
and suggestions, and Ill print the best of them. You neednt offer solutions. I
would just like you to be frank and face the issue head-on with pragmatism. If we can come
up with some ways to approach it, well all learn something useful.
Were all old
The first problem with age is our own not some employers. You might
better understand what I mean and how pervasive the problem is when I tell you Ive
had people in their late twenties fret that they were too old to get good jobs in their
industry. Honest. Age really is relative. But Im not here to argue that its
all just a matter of self-perception, and that no one will discriminate against your tired
old bones if only you have a good attitude.
Face it, our society idolizes youth. So as you get older,
you are progressively discounted, even though your skills may actually have become more
valuable. If you cant handle this social reality, go join some tribe that worships
wrinkles or wisdom. Otherwise, learn to make your way through the gauntlet of our
youth-centric society. Learn to handle it and handle it well.
Also be aware that age is a feature (or is it a bug?) of
all of our lives job hunters and employers alike. If youre an employer, take
heed. You will grow old. So, do unto others
I think there are two steps in approaching the age issue
when youre job hunting. I believe that if you can take the first, you might not need
to bother with the second.
STEP 1: Let Your Value
Lead Your Attitude
Ive coached job hunters and career changers in
their fifties and sixties, and Ive seen this approach succeed beyond all
expectations. It centers on controlling the interview by demonstrating your value so
compellingly that the employer is overwhelmed. What I like about this approach is that it
doesnt require you to discuss age-related matters with the employer. You just run
right over them. And, its simple. If youve read my other articles here on Ask The Headhunter, or my book, none of
this will surprise you.
My experience with both employers and job hunters
suggests to me that age itself isnt the issue. Its the perceived effect of
your age on (1) your ability to get the work done, and (2) your attitude, which affects
your ability to get the work done. If youre not good at your work, theres
nothing I can say that will help you, and theres no way you can blame your age for
it. Your attitude, however, is another story.
If youve had some bad experiences with people who
have misjudged you because of your age, youre walking around with some baggage
thats hard to hide. Watch it; you could be battering an otherwise open-minded
employer with your attitude so hard that he just doesnt want you around.
Beating the beast
Not long ago I worked with John, a manager at a big telecommunications company. John was
58. Anticipating a downsizing, his company offered him a "package" to retire
early. The other choice was to wait it out, and possibly get laid off with a less
attractive severance deal. John was avoiding the choice and hoping to actually get another
job offer before the deadline, either internally or with another company. John wasnt
in perfect health, but he was a pretty robust guy. The one thing he really had going for
him was his talent he was great at his work. Ironically, his talent got utterly
lost in interviews because he was so worried his age was a problem that he started acting
like it was a problem. In other words, John was on the defensive whenever he met with a
company, and it showed. Again and again he was turned down for good jobs. He had just
about given up when we met.
"I dont want to put these managers down, Nick.
I know theyre just doing their job, but damn it, my age isnt helping. I can
see it in their eyes. Theyve got lots of young candidates in the wings. What do they
want with a guy whos close to retirement? I cant blame them, really. But
theyre missing out on one great employee when they pass me over!"
We talked for four hours and I focused our conversation
on two things: Johns work and Johns age. While talking about the former, John
was animated and excited. He had great ideas, some that hed applied to his
companys benefit, and others that he was chomping at the bit to try out. He knew
every expert in his field. Johns grasp of industry issues was stunning, and he could
articulate himself well.
Whenever I turned the conversation to his age, an
incredible thing happened. Hed slump in his chair, he wouldnt look me in the
eye and hed become alternately defensive and aggressive. But ultimately, his tone
was that of a beaten man who was rationalizing his demise. Finally, I pointed out this
shift in his attitude and behavior.
"John, when you interview, without realizing it you
focus on your age because you think the employer sees an old man. Thats natural. But
youre causing half the problem. If the interviewer is wondering whether youre
preoccupied with your age, youre confirming it for him. If hes an age bigot,
"So what do I do, dye my hair? Show the interviewer
I can still run a 400-yard dash?" I was getting him upset, and he was becoming even
more defensive. As a seasoned manager, he knew how to keep his ire down, but his eyes
"No, you keep your mind off your age. You keep it
focused on your work. When you start wondering what this guy thinks about your white hair,
ask him a question about his project. Distract yourself from your age, and youll
distract him, too -- long enough to show him how you can help him. Thats all he
really wants anyway. But you have to help him, because either hes got a stereotype
in his head, or youre putting one there for him. Break the stereotype and
youve got control of the interview."
"So this is all my fault. Im acting old so he
focuses on my age."
"Its more subtle than that," I tried to
explain. "If he senses that you are focusing on your age at all, he can
justifiably conclude that your preoccupation with it will carry over into your work if he
hires you. In other words, youll let your attitude about age get in the way of doing
your job. That might mean youll be predisposed to argue with younger team members,
to take extra days off because of your health, or that youll walk around with a chip
on your shoulder. It's his responsibility to judge whether you will bring these costs into
For the first time in those four hours, John edged
forward in his seat and cocked his head. "You mean if I act like my age is an issue
hell figure itll be an issue after he hires me?"
Attitude: The weapon of
Your most powerful tool in any interview is the one that turns up the employers
business. In your meeting, keep the focus on his problems and the solutions you will
deliver. Direct the questions at the work and your abilities. You will overcome age
objections by demonstrating that they are irrelevant. Sound overly simple? Try
The next time he interviewed, John at 58
was hired by a young company that was exploding on the communications scene. They offered
him a higher salary and they gave him equity. And they were lucky they got him.
The next time I saw John, his defensiveness was gone,
replaced with the powerful confidence that was always there when he focused on the value
he knew he could deliver.
Many motivational speakers talk about your
"power" and how to use it. Some of that is bunk, but some of it is profound.
Ive interviewed and coached lots of people, and I can tell you that when someone is
powerful in a meeting, I not only feel it in them, I feel it energizing me. It makes me
want to be around them and to give them the benefit of the doubt. Any negative impressions
I might have had diminish and my positive impression grows. In controlling their attitude,
they control my attitude.
Your attitude counts for a lot. It affects
peoples impressions of you now, and it leads them to make predictions about how you
will behave later. Keep yourself focused on the employers problems and challenges,
and you will keep him focused on your abilities rather than your age. If you can do this
in your interviews, you may not need to address any other potential problems the employer
may have real or imagined -- regarding your age.
Thats why Ive broken this into two steps, and
you may not need to read any further.
If you get stuck, however, consider some of the following
ideas and apply them judiciously. These are not gospel, they wont work in all
situations, and theyre not guaranteed. But theyre a lot better than
complaining or worrying.
STEP 2: Put It On The
Every business community is based on profit. Thats
why companies hire workers: to produce profit. People work to earn a living; sometimes to
get rich. Some companies and people are also motivated by the challenge of their work and
by the prospect of creating something new that will benefit society at large that's
what makes the world go round. But to accomplish that lofty goal, youve got to
achieve profitability first. Thats how you survive to play another day.
Don't delude yourself: any issue that the employer
perceives might have an effect on profitability will affect his decision about hiring you.
Age is one of them.
My goal is to get people to talk and open the door so
they can work together profitably. Because employers are restricted from discussing
certain matters in an interview, as a job applicant you have to take it upon yourself to
put on the table those issues that you think might affect your being hired. As I said,
this is not intended to be a legal analysis of age discrimination. The judgment call is
yours. You dont have to do it; and in some cases it wont be to your advantage.
My suggestion is that you think about it, because its your prerogative. If it seems
the employer really might have a problem with your age you can try to hide it, but in my
opinion that will just distract you. Consider putting the issue on the table so the two of
you can deal with it. I know this is a professional imposition that should not confront
you. But it will, and if you want to control the negotiation youve got to take the
does it take to convince an employer that you are worth
hiring -- no matter what your age? Fearless Job
Three: Get in The Door
(way before your competition)
If you think an employer might tend toward age
discrimination, you need to do your homework before you approach the company. Find out
what the climate is. If its a bigoted company and youre not the suing kind,
In any case, the best way to address the issue is with
the manager youd be working for, not with the personnel department. If you let
yourself become part of the broader "interview and selection process", you can
get nailed by anonymous administrative people who may be too quick to dismiss you because
of your age. When the contact is one-on-one with the hiring manager, youre in a much
better position to make your case.
Remember James and the three hidden messages he thought
employers were sending when they turned down an older job candidate? Well, I think there
are more than three. Lets look at what they are and explore a few things both
employers and workers might do to make their lives more profitable and successful when
theyre confronted with the issue of a workers age.
Some will argue with this approach and call it an
invitation to trouble. Faced with an uncertain situation, Id rather be the one to
deal the cards and start the play. But you have to decide for yourself.
Youre too old, but
we can't really say that to you.
An employer can think Im too old and base his actions on his perception --
and I get screwed. So its better for me if the employer feels he can talk to me
about whats on his mind. If youre an employer, this is the part of the article
where you need to pay close attention. You are, after all, part of the problem when there
What is it that really troubles you about an older job
candidate? Are you afraid hes slow or prone to illness? Or that shes
inflexible? Maybe you think hes so skilled that he might intimidate the rest of the
team. Or, worse, that hes not up to date technically. More immediately, you might
conclude (without asking) that hes too expensive. Or, that shes likely to
retire before the project is done. Perhaps your HR department sees higher insurance costs
or the potential for an age discrimination lawsuit down the road. Maybe you believe older
workers have "an attitude".
All these things might be legitimate causes for concern
on an employers part, whether theyre legal or not. Think about each one
carefully, and youll find that it can hamper a companys success. (If
youre a job hunter, never forget: no company is in business to employ anyone.
Theyre in business to be successful and to turn a profit.)
But here's the real danger: as an employer are you
making assumptions about the issues I've listed above just because the job candidate has
If youre an employer, you may not see yourself in
this picture, but look carefully. Its difficult to avoid discriminatory assumptions
when youre processing 2,000 resumes while trying to fill two jobs.
Your buzzwords are as old
as you are.
As an employer, do you really consider the individual? Its likely that part of your
hiring process prevents you from doing so and your process may be contributing to
When your HR department selects job candidates by
scanning resumes for key words, older people may be eliminated because they dont
"have" certain buzzwords. More careful attention to a resume might reveal a more
seasoned and older worker who could learn the necessary technology quickly
and perhaps apply it more effectively than a younger worker. Or, the candidate might
possess the fundamental skills you need, but her resume doesn't name them the way you'd
expect. Is your system costing you valuable talent? Is it turning you into a stupid bigot?
Thats why traditional hiring methods and
"resume processing" can be a terrible way to select and hire people. These
methods are reductionist. They encourage inappropriate and sometimes costly
conclusions. Its also why a person puts himself at a disadvantage when he submits a
resume to your company. No piece of paper can make his case, especially when theres
a tendency to make assumptions about some of the information (like dates) on it.
If you want to always hire good people, never make
assumptions. That paragraph full of concerns above needs to be addressed, but address it
with the candidate, not by your lonesome.
Some troubleshooting advice
|Get past the resume;
get past the process
You say an employer can't get into such detail with each applicant and besides,
youve got 2,000 of their resumes on your desk? Sure you can tackle it! Here's how to
save time: dont talk to anyone who sent you a resume. Talk only to the handful of
candidates who are bold and motivated enough to call you directly and make the case about
why you should hire them. There; Ive eliminated most of your work. (Believe me, what
I call "The New Interview" works.)
If you're a job hunter, this is a prime reason to avoid relying on
your resume. Rather than leaving dates off the resume to hide your age, skip the resume
altogether. The other articles here on Ask The Headhunter are
chock full of ideas about how to search for a job without running headlong into the
Of course, if youre an employer, parts of this approach are illegal.
This is where the candidate comes in Im talking to both of you. The hiring
dialogue has two parts. As a candidate, you need to show the employer that youre
there to improve his business thats why he ought to hire and pay you good
money. Dont play coy. If youre young, you need to address the issue of
inexperience. If youre old, you need to address some of the issues weve been
talking about here. Yes, its a risk. But, if you dont start this discussion it
wont happen by itself, and youll be dismissed by way of a bunch of idiotic
assumptions made by the employer. In my opinion, thats a bigger risk.
Raise the standards
If as a job hunter you encounter a true bigot of an employer, sue him or
walk away. If youre sitting in front of a manager whos trying to run his
business effectively and might be prone to inaccurate assumptions, help him out. Raise the
standard of discourse in the interview. Review the concerns I listed at the beginning of
this section and deal with them. Get the age questions out of the way and get on with the
matter at hand: doing the job. Because, bottom line, thats the only reason
youre sitting there together.
Youre so old youre
off our chart.
Whether you like it or not, people who interview you will make the easiest, simplest
decisions based on the least amount of thinking possible on their part. That is,
theyll fall back on stereotypes. Theyre wrong for doing it. But unless you can
prove you stand apart from the age stereotype, thats where theyll assign you.
Underneath it all, it isnt your age employers are concerned about. Its the
effect of your age on your ability to do the work. Regardless of who has the wrong
perception, how you ultimately come across on this score is up to you.
Until the Day Of The Great Illumination
you know, when everyone becomes perfectly smart, rational, fair and kind you must
take responsibility for these problems and decide how (and whether) to tackle them. As if
this werent complicated enough, you must also be aware that under some circumstances
discussing these issues will negate the approach we covered in Step 1. Thats why I
broke the steps up. Step 2 is a fall-back approach that you must think carefully about
Let's look at the stereotypes and some of the choices you
Are you healthy in body?
There are two issues here. First, are you likely to miss work because of health reasons?
Can you be depended on to work the same schedule others do? If youre healthy, this
may seem ludicrous to you. But age triggers assumptions about health. So, consider putting
it on the table. Discuss your attendance history and the time you have always committed to
your job. Give examples. Indicate your understanding of the nature of the industry
youre in, and show you can keep up.
The second issue is the high cost of insurance. This
concerns all employers. They cant tell you that, but you can tell them. If
youre in an age bracket that leads insurance companies to charge a lot to cover you,
look at all your alternatives. Does your spouse have a good policy you could ride on so
your prospective employer wouldnt have to cover you? Is your health history so good
that insuring you might not cost the company as much as theyd expect? If your health
is not so great, are you willing to forego some salary for the benefit of good coverage?
That might change an employers mind about hiring you. (Employment attorneys might
want to kill me for suggesting that.) These are all touchy issues. But the employer
cant bring them up. Should you? I dont know it depends on your
situation. But beware. This is hardball. If you dont pitch hard, you could get
pulled from the game and no one will ever tell you why. Funny how the law lets a company
avoid these issues, but doesnt do such a good job of preventing it from turning you
down because of them.
Are you healthy in spirit?
This is another version of Step 1. Do you have a good attitude about life, work and your
professional prospects? Having experienced age discrimination, its natural for you
to have a chip on your shoulder. What matters is how that chip affects your work and your
relationships with your team. Are you focused on the work, or on what everyone thinks of
the shade of your hair? Act healthy. Sound healthy. That goes not just for your body, but
for your words and your attitude. The best sign of health, in my opinion, is enthusiasm
and an interest in the world around you. Focus on the work at hand and demonstrate how
youre going to do it well, and the interviewer will take your lead. If you project
the Panavision history of your past professional life you will lose the interviewer.
Thats the best way to say, "Im lost in my past. Wanna come?" What he
really wants is for you to focus on now and on his living, breathing business.
If you resent younger co-workers (or managers) for their energy, their salary, their more
recent education, their cockiness, their music, their interests or for the mistakes they
make, no one will want you around. (Why should they?) Ive met my share of smart-ass
young guys who think their droppings dont stink, but Ive also had my fill of
older guys who insist the world is flat.
Marcus Aurelius is so old hes dead, but he was one smart dude: "The first rule
is to keep an untroubled spirit." Why? Because people notice.
Are you retiring next month?
If youre in your middle fifties or early sixties and the project youre being
considered for is going to last a few years, will you see it through or will you take to
the high seas for that around-the-world sailing trip youve planned for your next
birthday? An employer has the right to know whether you really intend to stick it out as
long as they need you to but they cant ask. So open the discussion. Ease the
managers mind. His concern is legitimate. Make it easy for him or her to get past
the years so you can have a useful discussion about what you can (and will) do. Worried
that this might restrict some of your options down the road? So will being unemployed.
Remember: Im not here to show you how to change the law or how to make the world
right. Im trying to suggest some pragmatic options, and to help you make choices.
We need a Chevy. Youre a Rolls.
Have you got so much experience and ability under your belt that the employer might have
to drain the budget to hire you? Not many companies need $100,000 employees. But they
might be interested in $70,000 worth of you. Is that discrimination? Only if they
misrepresent the job and the money. If they want you but cant afford you and
dont tell you, youre the one left holding the bag. Its up to you to pull out a rabbit for your na´ve audience.
If youll take a lesser job at a lower salary, say so. The key is commitment. Without
it, you dont have a chance. "I will commit to stay and finish it. Youll
get my skills at a lower cost, but youll get top notch work without an attitude. If
a better-paying, more challenging job is available here when Im done and I
emphasize when Im done , Id like the first shot at
Or, convince them to pony up for the magic you can do. Usually, a manager is interested
only in getting the job done, and he doesnt expect wonders. So, show him "wonders". If you do your homework
and prepare a presentation that compellingly shows how hiring you will add more to the
bottom line than expected, you have a shot at re-defining the job and possibly the
compensation. Delivering wonders can change an entire negotiation. But
thats totally up to you.
If youve read William Bridges Job Shift, you
already understand that "a job" isnt the only solution to getting the work
done. If the employer cant afford you full-time, prepare to be a consultant. Do your
homework, and offer only what they need at a price they can afford.
Sometimes, a "hidden" cost problem has to do with more than an employers
budget. Hiring a worker whos more experienced (or expensive) than others on the team
(especially the supervisor) can threaten the peace, and the employer pays a price for
creating this sort of situation. Your diplomacy and team spirit will count for a lot in
the interview. Dont overwhelm your new employer. Your real challenge in this case
will be to negotiate the work and the compensation, but you may need to leave part of your
ego at home. If you find yourself downplaying your abilities to an uncomfortable audience,
stop. You dont need to apologize to anyone for what you can do. It just may be the
Sometimes an employer just wont bend. But
thats because theyre stuck in a mindset that was prevalent when the business
climate was different. If you address this with the hiring manager candidly and your
commitment is convincing, youll have a shot. If youre an employer, dont
be a fool. Dont let a job candidates age get in your way. Sit down and figure
out whats really concerning you. Instead of worrying about where youd get the
budget to pay his salary, ask what the investment could bring to your departments
bottom line. Give yourself and your company the opportunity to hire seasoned talent that
will pay off.
Its the work,
Stupid (Am I repeating myself?)
The work is the reason a person is hired. Associated with
that are the success of the business and its profitability. We lose sight of this too
often on both sides of the interview desk. Employers will discriminate, intentionally or
not, and it will cost them because they will miss out on the talents of older workers. It
can even land them in court. If they put aside some of the idiotic, reductionist hiring
processes they use, they might be able to focus on the work and on the value an older
worker might bring to it. Younger employees might be cheaper, but ultimately a
companys profits depend not only on the cost of workers but on the margin of profit
they produce. If youre an employer, do you apply that calculation or projection?
Older job hunters sometimes walk around worried and
frustrated about the stupidity of age discrimination, and they forget what makes companies
tick. The bottom line is, if you can prove you can deliver value and a commitment,
youre worth hiring. You just need to find a company worth working for. Sometimes,
you need to turn a na´ve employer into a smarter one by showing him how to apply a higher
standard to his hiring practices.
Please tell us what you
think of this article.
How can you make
your next interview count? Fearless Job
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