Go to Menu 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, disability… 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 don’t 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.

"You’re all TAB’s," 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 it’s about your own ethnic group, and that it’s true.

Realizing we were TAB’s 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.

Temporarily young?
These are some of the subjects of email I’ve gotten in the years I've been producing Ask The Headhunter:

  • "Age And Expertise Discrimination"
  • "Overqualified"
  • "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 haven’t thought about it yet, it’s because you’re a TY. Temporarily Young. I figure the chances that I’ll get old are, oh, at least a little better than slipping on the ice in San Diego and breaking my back. So it’s time to talk about it.

What’s inspired me to cover the subject here (I’ve 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 "TY’s". Here’s 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 the following:
  • 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 I’ve 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, you’re 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 you’re an employer, you may be contributing to the problem, either because you’re dismissing older applicants or because you haven’t found ways to deal frankly with age-related matters that concern you.

Of course, you can also take legal action if you’ve been discriminated against. But that’s another discussion and I’m not going to get into it here. We’re 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 legal.

The only point of view you’ll 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 won’t get the benefits they expect, but they’ll 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 they’ve faced – and that can turn an otherwise upstanding employer off. These people may unwittingly foster the attitude they’re trying to avoid.

We all face concerns others have about our age. It happens when we’re young and it happens when we’re old. If we hide behind our own wishful thinking, behind the law, or behind our fear of a useful dialogue, we’re cooked. If we pretend it’s the other guy’s problem, then we’re causing half the problem ourselves. But, it’s 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 I’ll print the best of them. You needn’t 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, we’ll all learn something useful.

We’re all old
The first problem with age is our own – not some employer’s. You might better understand what I mean and how pervasive the problem is when I tell you I’ve 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 I’m not here to argue that it’s 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 can’t 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 you’re an employer, take heed. You will grow old. So, do unto others…

I think there are two steps in approaching the age issue when you’re 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

I’ve coached job hunters and career changers in their fifties and sixties, and I’ve 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 doesn’t require you to discuss age-related matters with the employer. You just run right over them. And, it’s simple. If you’ve 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 isn’t the issue. It’s 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 you’re not good at your work, there’s nothing I can say that will help you, and there’s no way you can blame your age for it. Your attitude, however, is another story.

If you’ve had some bad experiences with people who have misjudged you because of your age, you’re walking around with some baggage that’s hard to hide. Watch it; you could be battering an otherwise open-minded employer with your attitude so hard that he just doesn’t 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 wasn’t 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 don’t want to put these managers down, Nick. I know they’re just doing their job, but damn it, my age isn’t helping. I can see it in their eyes. They’ve got lots of young candidates in the wings. What do they want with a guy who’s close to retirement? I can’t blame them, really. But they’re missing out on one great employee when they pass me over!"

We talked for four hours and I focused our conversation on two things: John’s work and John’s age. While talking about the former, John was animated and excited. He had great ideas, some that he’d applied to his company’s benefit, and others that he was chomping at the bit to try out. He knew every expert in his field. John’s grasp of industry issues was stunning, and he could articulate himself well.

Whenever I turned the conversation to his age, an incredible thing happened. He’d slump in his chair, he wouldn’t look me in the eye and he’d 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. That’s natural. But you’re causing half the problem. If the interviewer is wondering whether you’re preoccupied with your age, you’re confirming it for him. If he’s an age bigot, you’re screwed."

"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 flashed anger.

"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 you’ll distract him, too -- long enough to show him how you can help him. That’s all he really wants anyway. But you have to help him, because either he’s got a stereotype in his head, or you’re putting one there for him. Break the stereotype and you’ve got control of the interview."

"So this is all my fault. I’m acting old so he focuses on my age."

"It’s 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, you’ll let your attitude about age get in the way of doing your job. That might mean you’ll be predisposed to argue with younger team members, to take extra days off because of your health, or that you’ll walk around with a chip on your shoulder. It's his responsibility to judge whether you will bring these costs into his business."

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 he’ll figure it’ll be an issue after he hires me?"


Attitude: The weapon of choice
Your most powerful tool in any interview is the one that turns up the employer’s 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 it.

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. I’ve 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 people’s impressions of you now, and it leads them to make predictions about how you will behave later. Keep yourself focused on the employer’s 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.

That’s why I’ve 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 won’t work in all situations, and they’re not guaranteed. But they’re a lot better than complaining or worrying.

STEP 2: Put It On The Table

Every business community is based on profit. That’s 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, you’ve got to achieve profitability first. That’s 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 don’t have to do it; and in some cases it won’t be to your advantage. My suggestion is that you think about it, because it’s 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 you’ve got to take the initiative.

What does it take to convince an employer that you are worth hiring -- no matter what your age? Fearless Job Hunting!

Fearless Job Hunting
Book 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 it’s a bigoted company and you’re not the suing kind, skip them.

In any case, the best way to address the issue is with the manager you’d 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, you’re 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. Let’s 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 they’re confronted with the issue of a worker’s age.

Some will argue with this approach and call it an invitation to trouble. Faced with an uncertain situation, I’d rather be the one to deal the cards and start the play. But you have to decide for yourself.

You’re too old, but we can't really say that to you.
An employer can think I’m too old and base his actions on his perception -- and I get screwed. So it’s better for me if the employer feels he can talk to me about what’s on his mind. If you’re 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 is one.

What is it that really troubles you about an older job candidate? Are you afraid he’s slow or prone to illness? Or that she’s inflexible? Maybe you think he’s so skilled that he might intimidate the rest of the team. Or, worse, that he’s not up to date technically. More immediately, you might conclude (without asking) that he’s too expensive. Or, that she’s 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 employer’s part, whether they’re legal or not. Think about each one carefully, and you’ll find that it can hamper a company’s success. (If you’re a job hunter, never forget: no company is in business to employ anyone. They’re 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 topped fifty?

If you’re an employer, you may not see yourself in this picture, but look carefully. It’s difficult to avoid discriminatory assumptions when you’re 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? It’s likely that part of your hiring process prevents you from doing so – and your process may be contributing to discrimination.

When your HR department selects job candidates by scanning resumes for key words, older people may be eliminated because they don’t "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?

That’s 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. It’s 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 there’s 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, you’ve got 2,000 of their resumes on your desk? Sure you can tackle it! Here's how to save time: don’t 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; I’ve 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 "resume obstacle".

Start talking
Of course, if you’re an employer, parts of this approach are illegal. This is where the candidate comes in – I’m talking to both of you. The hiring dialogue has two parts. As a candidate, you need to show the employer that you’re there to improve his business – that’s why he ought to hire and pay you good money. Don’t play coy. If you’re young, you need to address the issue of inexperience. If you’re old, you need to address some of the issues we’ve been talking about here. Yes, it’s a risk. But, if you don’t start this discussion it won’t happen by itself, and you’ll be dismissed by way of a bunch of idiotic assumptions made by the employer. In my opinion, that’s 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 you’re sitting in front of a manager who’s 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, that’s the only reason you’re sitting there together.

You’re so old you’re 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, they’ll fall back on stereotypes. They’re wrong for doing it. But unless you can prove you stand apart from the age stereotype, that’s where they’ll assign you. Underneath it all, it isn’t your age employers are concerned about. It’s 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 weren’t complicated enough, you must also be aware that under some circumstances discussing these issues will negate the approach we covered in Step 1. That’s why I broke the steps up. Step 2 is a fall-back approach that you must think carefully about taking.

Let's look at the stereotypes and some of the choices you can make:

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 you’re 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 you’re in, and show you can keep up.

The second issue is the high cost of insurance. This concerns all employers. They can’t tell you that, but you can tell them. If you’re 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 wouldn’t have to cover you? Is your health history so good that insuring you might not cost the company as much as they’d 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 employer’s mind about hiring you. (Employment attorneys might want to kill me for suggesting that.) These are all touchy issues. But the employer can’t bring them up. Should you? I don’t know – it depends on your situation. But beware. This is hardball. If you don’t 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 doesn’t 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, it’s 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 you’re 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. That’s the best way to say, "I’m 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?) I’ve met my share of smart-ass young guys who think their droppings don’t stink, but I’ve also had my fill of older guys who insist the world is flat.

Marcus Aurelius is so old he’s 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 you’re in your middle fifties or early sixties and the project you’re 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 you’ve 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 can’t ask. So open the discussion. Ease the manager’s 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: I’m not here to show you how to change the law or how to make the world right. I’m trying to suggest some pragmatic options, and to help you make choices.

We need a Chevy. You’re 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 can’t afford you and don’t tell you, you’re the one left holding the bag. It’s up to you to pull out a rabbit for your na´ve audience.

If you’ll take a lesser job at a lower salary, say so. The key is commitment. Without it, you don’t have a chance. "I will commit to stay and finish it. You’ll get my skills at a lower cost, but you’ll get top notch work without an attitude. If a better-paying, more challenging job is available here when I’m done – and I emphasize ‘when I’m done’ – , I’d like the first shot at it."

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 doesn’t 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 that’s totally up to you.

If you’ve read William Bridges’ Job Shift, you already understand that "a job" isn’t the only solution to getting the work done. If the employer can’t 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 employer’s budget. Hiring a worker who’s 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. Don’t 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 don’t need to apologize to anyone for what you can do. It just may be the wrong employer.

Sometimes an employer just won’t bend. But that’s because they’re 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, you’ll have a shot. If you’re an employer, don’t be a fool. Don’t let a job candidate’s age get in your way. Sit down and figure out what’s really concerning you. Instead of worrying about where you’d get the budget to pay his salary, ask what the investment could bring to your department’s bottom line. Give yourself and your company the opportunity to hire seasoned talent that will pay off.

It’s 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 company’s profits depend not only on the cost of workers but on the margin of profit they produce. If you’re 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, you’re 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.

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How to say NO
when employers
demand your
salary history,
to make them
say YES to
higher job offers!