In reading about the trials and tribulations of “older” job seekers, and as I go through the dismal soul-crushing process myself, one comes across several assumptions said to be commonly made by our younger counterparts. Mostly to explain why those with experience are at a disadvantage when competing with the unproven. The first is that experienced applicants need worry about being overqualified, the second and related that they are perceived as less flexible, unable to adapt to always changing technology in the workplace. Below I’ll take a crack at debunking those myths, feel free to send any relevant snippets of my aged wisdom to your nearest HR and hiring departments.
My step-mother started her career at IBM when every office came complete with a Selectric typewriter and filing cabinet. The notion that one day those same work stations would have their own “personal computer” would have seemed fodder for a nerdy joke even at Big Blue. She started out as a secretary, no engineering degree, nor could she write code for the Neolithic programs being used at the time. And yet, by the time she retired in the 1990s, she was a high level manager well versed in the latest office technology.
One of the things that helped her beat out better educated and younger rivals was simple typing speed: this woman can type faster than anyone I’ve ever seen, it’s a thing of beauty to watch, almost like a virtuoso pianist, not one move wasted, her fingers blur and yet never leave the keyboard. She can knock out two hundred words a minute without a single mistake, transcribing from printed text or written short-hand, all while holding a voice conversation about something else entirely. When keyboards became ubiquitous, she had a huge jump over co-workers who hadn’t spent years honing their typing skills.
How to explain that: simple, she was offered a fair living wage with regular raises and promotions for mastering each new job, so she busted her ass. Staying “caught up” with changing technology was barely incidental to that. While we’re on it, no matter how complicated something might seem to the outside world which doesn’t do it much, just about anyone will get pretty damn good at stuff they do for hours every day, week after week and year after year.
Contrast that with someone just out college today. Yes, that young’n may be a lovable ball of energy, they might have grown up with cell phones and the Internet and see themselves as light-years ahead of someone decades older, easy to believe when the reference point is their retired grandparents. But for hiring managers to assume they can better adapt to changing technology is at best pure speculation: they’ve never had to do it! Time will tell, maybe they can, maybe they can’t. Make it into your mid 30s and get a few Windows conversions behind you, now you’re getting it, persist until you pass 40 and you’ve seen technology revolutions come and go, now we can talk more as equals. After the younger cube slave gets three full decades under their belt and have gone from selectrics and file cabinets to tablets interfacing with cloud-based databases, or the future equivalent, yeah, maybe then I’ll stand by you as you proudly walk the walk. Until then they’re just talking the talk.
Can you imagine if we treated learning to speak a language fluently the same way we treat technology? Not only would we praise the kid who grew up in France for speaking French fluently, someone who mastered Mandarin and Finnish at age 40 would have face an uphill battle persuading us they’re as flexible and as able to adapt to new languages as well as the monolingual French kid.
The 35 year-old, the 45 year-old, and especially the 55 year-old prospective employee shouldn’t need to demo technological flexibility above and beyond the twenty-something newbie, they have done it in real life. It’s not the most experienced worker that should be tasked with persuading a hiring manager they’ll try their hardest to keep up, they have kept up. And yet we’re to believe it’s the veteran worker that must prove their adaptability? Give me a fucking break. If someone really thinks that way, it’s nothing more then projected self-absorbed, unearned conceit.
Getting knocked-out of the running for a job because of the real worry the applicant is over qualified is possible, one can find examples of it in real life and documented online. But think of the people you hire: when was the last time you took your car in to a shop and insisted the mechanic not be overqualified? How many times have you gotten on a plane worried that the cockpit crew has logged too much flight-time or have superfluous experience flying too many different kinds of aircraft? Have you ever looked up from the operating table, noticed the surgeon had a few gray hairs, and asked for a younger guy just out of med school because he hasn’t done as many procedures? What if you found one of the guys on the crew who cuts your grass every month had a PhD in botany, would you open up the yellow pages and start hunting for someone less educated?
Those thoughts would never occur to you, we’d laugh if someone else raised them as legit concerns, so the idea that there is a large number of people out there in positions of hiring responsibility secretly sorting out resumes with too much experience seems highly unlikely to me. Besides, it’s easy enough to deal with if you’re really worried. If a job requirement is minimum five years experience or a bachelor’s degree, and assuming you have a masters and ten years experience, simply tweak your resume to show you have over five years experience and a four year degree. Problem solved.
Yes, you are at a disadvantage if you are over 40 years old. You are at a disadvantage if you are black or female. For that nmatter, if you’re a male and like me you are shorter than average, you are at a disadvantage when competing with someone who is two meters tall when it comes to the in-person interview. Any disadvantage is grealty maginified during hard times. But hard times is the underlying factor here.
The primary reason it’s so hard to get an interview and land a job these days is simple and brutal: there are not nearly enough jobs to go around. There just aren’t. They call this a recession, but for many of us it’s a full-blown depression. People have put up test ads on Craigslist for mediocre jobs and gotten hundreds of applications within a single day. That’s what’s really going on in the job market, hundreds are applying for every, single, job. There is no doubt that some unconscious or intentional age bias is sneaking into the hiring process, more so when the first-line filters you have to get past are people in their 20s making ten bucks an hour who are way, way overworked. If caught doing it I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried to justify it with buzz words like overqualified or concerns over adaptability. But those would just be ad hoc rationalizations thrown up reflexively to defend what they know full well is indefensible. And if anyone is doing this knowingly, or is being told on or off the record to do it, fair warning: age bias is illegal and will eventually get exposed if done for too long, especially in this day and age of disposable video cameras and youTube. It will end up costing the company an arm and a leg in legal fees and end up costing you your job.
I’m serious about that last part. Don’t be an idiot, do not be a party to this. If pressured, find a way to get in writing. Because the same sleazy manager who whispered in your ear to quietly screen out people over 40 will publicly denounce you as a hopeless reprobate and throw you under the buss faster than Bridget Kelley was thrown under the New Jersey turnpike, when and if it gets to the head boss’s office by way of the local newspaper or state court.