The ‘Antique’ Glass Ceiling
Why Companies Avoid Hiring You if You Are Over 50
For all of the progress we have made as a society to drive inclusion through the hiring process of people of all types, and all backgrounds, we are in no way where we could be. Companies now advertise how inclusive and diverse they are, willing to show the stats of their workforce demographics. What we see are what has become nearly the only two areas of diversity that companies feel matter – Race & Gender. In recent years, some of the more progressive and open companies have expanded to different areas to ensure they build their reputation as an equal opportunity employer. And many are doing it simply for the PR and is surface-level only. If you want to gauge how diverse a company truly is, check the data on the demographic makeup of the executive team, and upper-level management. You can also look at the hiring practices, and what demographics are represented hire to hire, and you may find some glaring omissions that suggest a company is not as inclusive as they advertise.
While race and gender are obviously important demographics due to discrimination for hundreds of years, today they have a lot of companies as many other demos that companies choose to exclude because they can get away with it. It highlights a fundamental problem, not only in hiring but in too many aspects of business and in our society as a whole. Such practices, whether companies or people in general, such discrimination and bias simply do not receive the same scrutiny and bad press for such practices as other forms of consideration. Bias is bias, and discrimination and exclusion need to be called out and eliminated. But with no one watching, companies are free to hire as they like, and people will still exclude applicants as they choose to as long as no one is watching, provided they have the main demographics covered.
While we intend to cover many forms of discrimination as we look to highlight the different ways companies present a thoughtful progressive front that is not backed up by the upper levels of their business nor in their hiring, we will focus on business and hiring, and specifically for the older worker, those 50+, in this article.
In an updated article from September 2022, AARP shares information on laws both state and federal created to stop the practice of Age Discrimination. It includes commentary from readers with their experiences having faced this during their careers.
Thankfully, many forms of bias are now covered by law in many countries, by many U.S. States, and by federal law. Yet it’s no secret that other forms of discrimination still exist. There is a clear reluctance on the part of many companies to simply omit a job applicant who is deemed to be over fifty, as evidenced by resumes that show 20-30 years of experience. Once looked at as highly valuable, it is increasingly perceived as a negative by employers. We will look at some of the reasons and insights why this trend has taken hold in recent years, and much of it is more about perception and preconceived notions than reality.
Every company has its own strategy, and focus to drive the success of its business, which is paramount to its success and to differentiate itself from the competition. When job openings arise, and the hiring manager or recruitment team begins the process of looking for the new employee, they will often map out a profile of their ideal candidate. Reading most job descriptions the requirements and ‘preferred’ experience and attributes read with a welcoming, open approach to all applicants. Here is an actual list of Responsibilities and Qualifications from a job posting from LinkedIn for a company looking for a Senior Web Developer:
- Maintain custom child themes for WordPress/WooCommerce sites, including…
- Management of the back end
- Implementation of new features
- Ownership of site performance and availability
- Collaboratively shape and build our next generation of web apps
What you can do…
- Back end: server integration, DNS, MySQL, PHP
- WordPress: Advanced Custom Fields, Theme/Plugin development
- eCommerce: WooCommerce, Stripe
- Version Control: Git
- Testing: PHPUnit
- APIs: REST/JSON
- Security: CSRF & SQL injection mitigation
- Our domain: Advertising Technology
Clearly, there is nothing in this list of requirements or qualifications that would suggest this role is not open to all candidates whose experience and skill align.
Many companies also spell out the type of characteristics and attributes that make for the right fit for them.
- Adaptive – pivots based on new information
- Analytical – reveals and articulates problems
- Antifragile – exhibits a growth mindset
- Creative – envisions multiple solutions
- Driven – refactors continuously
- Effective – works on tasks that have an impact on the desired outcome
- Focused – limits effort to own sphere of influence
- Organized – maintains systematic and well-labeled systems
- Persistent – pushes through obstacles
- Persuasive – consolidates argument into a concise and compelling case
- Proactive – assumes responsibility
There is nothing here to suggest that a person who meets the qualifications, the experience, and possesses the attributes listed wouldn’t make a great candidate. While not every application looks exactly like this, it is common for, not just this job type, but for many job postings. We see most with the list of skills specific to the position, then a list of characteristics like ‘Drive’, ‘Can Do Attitude’, ‘Passionate for…’. These are mostly fluff, designed to display a culture of free-thinking, hard-working, driven people who are all-in on the company, and fully engaged in their work. (It is wise to check online for employee and client surveys to get an accurate picture of culture and management!).
This article from the Monthly Labor Review highlights how pervasive age discrimination is in Hiring, including data on the rate of callback percentage of older to younger workers.
As you would expect, such a posting often yields hundreds of applicants whose age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and many other areas, run the spectrum. The issue is that once these applications and resumes come in, and a person with over twenty to thirty years of experience is identified, or shows a degree dated from the 1990s or earlier, this is an indicator that the candidate is probably in their forties or fifties, and perhaps older. We know this should not be a consideration, yet here are the perceptions that people, including those who making hiring decisions, sometimes bring to their candidate calibrations.
Lack of Adaptability: “People who are older are not as adaptable to new technologies, or the more dynamic work environments of today”; “Younger workers are more tech-savvy, having grown up in an era of developing technology and have a more natural understanding of current technologies, as well as an innate ability to adapt to the frequent technology advancements”.
Too Expensive: An older worker is typically a more experienced worker, which on the surface indicates that the candidate had natural progression, receiving raises, bonuses over the years that took their pay well beyond starting salaries of companies hiring”; “The younger worker with less experience has less leverage and expectation to command a great deal more than the budgeted starting salary”
Overqualified: “The older worker has so much experience and skill, they can clearly do the posted job at a high level with little ramp up time, and will quickly become bored and look to move internally or even externally, necessitating another new hire which is costly to a business”
Health and Reliability: “Insurance costs, absenteeism due to health reasons, and other health-related issues that may impact productivity are more prominent for older workers”
Longevity: “The older candidate, particularly those above the fifty-line, are likely planning for the next chapter of life, namely retirement, thus we may not have the new employee for very long”
Compatibility Issues: “Our team is quite a bit younger on average, with few over forty years old. How will a fifty-plus employee be able to relate to the rest of the team? This could cause issues and potential conflict within an otherwise harmonious and collaborative environment”
Tech Skill: “The older the candidate the less likely they are as current with today’s technology which will only get worse as new technologies develop and our new older employee is further from the technological era they are more comfortable with”
“Older workers move and work at a slower pace and will tire more quickly and frequently which will hurt productivity and may create discord with team members who need to pick up the slack”
These are nothing more than the perceptions of the short-sighted, and those who can recall the person or two who was in a similar age group and were slower or less adaptable or incompatible with the team, etc. These unconscious biases, are never based in fact but still pervade in business, certainly as it relates to hiring. While we all may have our hang-ups and unconscious biases, we are not all in a position to represent a business and make hiring decisions, and where perceptions can cross the line. In that capacity, bias of any kind is not only unethical, it may well be illegal, but nearly as important is the negative impact on a business that, through such bias, will no doubt be limiting itself if it excludes any group or demographic when they should be looking solely for the best, most qualified, candidate to fill their openings.
Most older workers are aware of the challenges they will face when they find themselves in the job market in the latter stages of their career, and prepare to overcome them. How does the older worker overcome these challenges, and demonstrate that they are more than the stereotype they have been given? Let’s take a second look at these ‘Urban Legends’ and unfounded stereotypes, and share some counterpoints for people to consider in many settings as they think about the more seasoned, and experienced worker.
Lack of Adaptability: It is not about age but about openness, curiosity, and exhibiting energy about changes in business, new technologies, and as interested in driving and adapting to change as ever.
Too Expensive: Compensation is relative and personal to each person and why the older worker is usually open to compensation based on the role and the associated work. Plus, the worker within ten to fifteen years from retirement is often at an advantageous point in life, with children out of school, tuition cared for, perhaps their home paid for, and have fewer expenses than earlier in their career when they were building their lives and raising children.
Overqualified: Whoever came up with this excuse for excluding any candidate on this basis is in the wrong business. Any company turning people away because they can do everything a job calls for with little time to acclimate, able to hit the ground running at a high level can’t expect to stay competitive for long, as a competitor with the same need will no doubt scoop up such a highly(not over!) qualified candidate.
Health & Reliability: The newer workforce has been the driving force behind more workplace flexibility, more time off, more remote work, etc. The older worker grew up in an environment where absenteeism was non-negotiable, and this generation of workers prided themselves on reliability, and near-perfect attendance, and continue to operate this way throughout their careers. They simply know no other way.
Longevity: Yes, the worker in their fifties is no doubt thinking of the day they can hand in their retirement papers. With the average retirement age between sixty-five to sixty, a worker in their mid-fifties has ten or more years to offer an employer. No business has a reasonable expectation of such tenure when hiring new people, and every study of the newest generations of workers shows a three to five-year average tenure. Plus the older worker is often looking for that last stop before retirement, and thus far more loyalty and adaptability to maintain their job until the next chapter.
Compatibility Issues: Between the generations, the oldest part of our workforce has the greater insight and experience working with every different type of person and personality, and thus far better prepared to deal with anyone and everyone – they have seen it all.
Technical Skill: The worker in their 50s did not grow up in the stone age, but at the beginning of the technological explosion as computers, the internet, wireless technology, smart phones and more came into existence and took over nearly every aspect of our work and lives. The older worker has seen it all, including how it has all evolved. Having worked throughout this time, everyone, the older worker included, has had to evolve with it…even if they weren’t born with a silver iPhone in their mouths.
Limited Energy: For decades with the advent of gyms on every corner and most offices, as well as innumerable fitness programs, people have been working hard to stay in shape and the increasing lifespan of people in the world reflects this trend for better health. The older know that good fitness means good health, and thus a longer life. This healthy trend includes working out, walking, and avoiding health risks all of which contribute to higher energy and spirit that the older worker can bring to a workplace unlike many.
Unconscious Bias often comes from first-hand experience. Those experiences however are usually quite limited. in most cases. We see that it does not take more than a single interaction, or experience, or two for our minds to draw conclusions. When we interact with people outside the demographics we are born into, which change throughout our lives whether simply through aging or through many other types of life changes, we frequently have our closest family and friends around us, many of whom share similar demographics. Thus, our interactions with those outside that ‘bubble’ can be limited. As we meet and spend time with people outside of our bubble, we too often categorize or stereotype an entire group or demographic with just that small sample size. And it is hard to overcome these biases for some.
Is Unconscious Bias Discrimination? It’s not, and the fact is that we all tend to have our own biases. Unconscious Bias is about how we think and react internally, whereas Discrimination is about what we do. Our brains are supercomputers, and will quickly categorize the person we meet in a variety of ways. Once we begin choosing our course of action, for example making a hiring decision, based on those biases is where we find ourselves discriminating against people.
So, while everyone can agree that stereotypes in general are seldom based in reality and are patently unfair, they certainly exist. The real challenge the older worker faces is how they get the face-to-face meeting with a hiring manager. How are they able to quash the stereotypes they know are out there so the person across from them can quickly see that there is more to the person than the gray hair or smile-wrinkles they see if they never get the chance to meet with that person to begin with? The interview is the perfect vehicle for anyone to demonstrate that they are more than their resume shows or suggests. But if the resume and application is deemed to fall into a category a recruitment team or employer is trying to avoid, those beyond skills and qualifications, it is simple enough to pass on and move to those who appear to be within the demographics deemed acceptable. That’s where such practices are discriminatory, but are as hard to prove as whether aliens exist. The better path for the older worker is demonstrate who they are, what they can do, and force their way into the conversation.
- Tailored Resume: If your career has spanned thirty years in an industry with the first ten largely learning your craft, moving from novice to expert, and the latter fifteen to twenty years is where your career took off, progressed, and ascended, start there and highlight the many accomplishments you have had along the way. And your MBA is what matters, not that it is from 1988. List your degrees, certifications and licenses without the dates of having achieved them.
- Continuous Learning: Show that you are as thoughtful and curious as your first day wide-eyed day in the workforce, and have never stopped taking on new challenges, embracing new technologies, and are ready for the next evolution of business and technology. The classes and courses completed, the certifications achieved, the organizations where you are a member or perhaps a leader in, all are valuable in showing that you never stop learning and growing regardless of age.
- Online Presence: Sure there was no Facebook in 1985, and much of social media came along when the 50+ worker was likely in their 30s and 40s, but it is no excuse to have no presence online. Get your profiles updated, network with friends, colleagues present and past, and show that you are a ‘in the game’, as this is often a veiled tactic for people to get an idea of whether a person is ‘too old’ for their workplace. Plus, should you apply to a job, being part of social networks presents avenues to reach out directly to people and discuss opportunities.
- Show Enthusiasm: This may seem simple, even obvious, but it is probably the first characteristic that a person will look for in any applicant, but particularly those who are older than their average worker. Passion and Enthusiasm are visible are hard to fake, and thus it is critical that you don’t ‘prove the stereotype’, but instead show that you have an unwavering energy and passion for what you do, and bring it every day.
Stereotypes come in many forms, but regardless of how and when, we all see clearly how stereotypes do damage, obviously not just to the older worker, but to anyone falling victim to them, we all are able to identify them when they happen, which means we can all defeat them. But it takes confidence, and strength of character to stop it and demand fairness from your company, particularly in its hiring practices.
Age cannot be a barrier to employment but instead should be viewed as an incredible value proposition, as they bring a wealth of experience, skills, and wisdom to any team and organization. Those companies who understand what diversity really means, know that a multi-generational workforce is a benefit to all and what creates the dynamic workforce that powers innovative companies. For hiring, it not only is the fair, equitable thing to do but makes incredible business sense as well. Looking for and considering everyone based on their qualifications, skill set, and experience, and making the offer to the best candidate is how you build a great team, turn out products that people want, create brand superiority, and ensure you are the employer of choice in your industry.