5 ways to battle age discrimination when applying for a job

Age discrimination in hiring is rampant but hard to prove.

  • By Alessandra Malito,
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Waiting for a call about a job offer is never easy, but older applicants probably have it the hardest — they're less likely to get a call back, and if they do, it may take them more than a month longer.

Age discrimination can be hard to prove on the job, but during the hiring process, it's even more difficult. Employers can so easily say they decided to go another way, or simply not reach out after receiving an application or resume, and there's little evidence to show that it was because of a person's age or high school graduation year.

Why the disinterest? There are misconceptions about older workers, such as they will soon experience cognitive decline, which would affect their work, they are only looking for something temporary to fill their time until retirement, or they're bad with technology, said Julie Ragatz, director of the Center for Ethics in Financial Services and assistant professor at the American College.

Just how bad is it for older applicants? Displaced workers who are 50 years or older were unemployed for almost six weeks longer than someone between 30 and 49 years old, and more than 10 weeks longer than people between the ages of 20 and 29, according to a federal displaced worker survey from 2014.

In one of the largest resume studies to date, with more than 40,000 resumes sent out to 13,000 job postings for retail, administrative assistant and other jobs in 12 cities, Patrick Button, a professor of Tulane University, and two colleagues found older applicants had the lowest level of callbacks, especially older female applicants.

As a result, older unemployed Americans are seeing a different picture in the search for a job than others — especially if they've been unemployed for a while, regardless the fact there are a record high number of job openings and the unemployment rate is at all-time lows.

A third of job seekers 55 and older are considered longtime unemployed (so out of work for more than six months), and the average time they're unemployed is between seven and nine months.

So what can older applicants do?

Show off your web skills

These days, having a strong online presence, especially for a job at a company with a strong online presence, is critical. At minimum, applicants should have a full and updated LinkedIn profile, said Phyllis Mufson, a career coach in Sarasota, Fla.

Don't worry about being on all social media platforms, like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, but be attuned to the small ways to show you're savvy on the web. Even something small, like a graphic in your email signature can catch a hiring manager's eye. "Small things like that create an up-to-date impression," Mufson said.

Don't take everything off the résumé

First, always make sure your resume has a current format with important keywords. Resumes submitted online often go through a machine to check for words that match the job posting. That technology may become more advanced, Button said. He's seen some people leave high school graduate years off of the résumé, though he's not sure that's a good idea — employers may end up asking later on anyway.

Accentuate the skills you learned from your years in the workforce, and highlight any experience relevant to the position you're applying for now. If you feel you must rewrite your resume, elaborate on recent achievements and new or ongoing education, Mufson said.

Be attentive to inappropriate questions

There are a few questions that flag ageism in the hiring process, according to the Society of Human Resources, such as "Would it be hard working for a boss younger than you?" and "Why would you want this job, given all your experience?" They tend to infer the hiring manager or interviewer assumes you're too old for the job, or won't be interested in it for long.

Hiring discrimination is hard to document, but can be seen in job postings that ask for workers of specific ages, "recent graduate" or "college student," or terms like "boy" or "girl," according to a 1983 report from Stephen McConnell, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Aging. Other terms during the interview include "overqualified" and forced assumptions about long hours or workloads.

Practice for interviews

Talk through potential questions and strong answers with a former colleague or boss, family member or friend, or career coach, and ask for feedback on ways you present yourself, Mufson suggests. Also beat any misconceptions about older workers by being energetic, expressing your interest in staying with the company for years to come and embracing change, Ragatz said. Don't feel you have to change your physical appearance either, experts said.

Remain calm

Not everyone shares those misconceptions about working seniors. There are positive assumptions about older employees as well, such as having a good work ethic with good social skills, being loyal to their employers and having flexibility to do the work, Mufson said. Perhaps one of the most important reminders during the job search is to stay positive, Ragatz said. "Don't be discouraged," she said. "There is work that needs to be done."

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