Jack is 59 years old, looking for a job for the first time in about 20 years. He can’t seem to find the right fit. He has had a few interviews and he seems to be working hard at his search. He is starting to get discouraged that he will ever get another job. He is starting to think he can’t find a job because he is old. It couldn’t be anything else, right?
This is a pretty common story these days. So what is going on? Is it age discrimination? Or what?
There are three possibilities.
It might be age discrimination. Sometimes hiring managers have hidden (or maybe not so hidden) bias against older folks. I am not naïve. I know it exists. It is awkward to manage people who are older than you are.
I first became Director of Human Resources just past my 30th birthday in the late 1980s. Everyone was older than me. So in addition to trying to figure out how to be a leader, I was trying to figure out how to give orders to people my parents’ age. And they were looking to me for direction. It was weird. I am a (very!) young baby boomer so EVERYONE I worked with or tried to hire was older than me. It was hard for about 10 years to find younger people to hire at all because there were so many baby boomers out there. The workforce pretty much included only two generations.
These days there are at least four generations in the work force: Traditionalists, those born before WWII who are in their late 60s and 70s, Baby Boomers who range in age from early 50s to 60s, Gen X who are 30-something or so, and Millenials who are 20-something. Any minute now the next generation, currently in high school and college, will make the fifth generation in the work force.
It is hard to assume it is merely age discrimination preventing Jack from finding a job. Hiring managers are pretty used to a wide range of ages on their teams, people are working longer, and older people have a lot of knowledge that smart hiring managers want to snap up.
This careful balance of generations with different viewpoints and different skill levels makes it complicated for the leader. The hiring manager will be looking for skills and energy to enhance the departmental balance.
So unless the company is made up completely of twenty-somethings who do not value what Jack brings to the table, I would not assume it is just age discrimination.
Perhaps it is the way Jack is conducting his job search. Since he has not looked for a job in about 20 years, he might be doing it wrong. The job market is changing quickly and the way people search for jobs is changing even quicker. If Jack focuses his search on job ads in the newspaper, a very common way to find a job 20+ years ago, then he is completely missing the boat. His job search could take forever. Jack needs to network, he needs to have a visible, active presence on social networking like Facebook and especially LinkedIn.com. His resume needs to have a certain look and contain keywords that will attract attention from the computers that are reading his resume now.
Since Jack is getting some interviews, I suspect the problem might be something altogether different. I wonder if Jack looks and acts like an old man who has given up on the modern world. Modern hiring managers don’t care about age as much as they care about energy. They want to hire people who are active, vital, knowledgeable, and who demonstrate by the way they act that they can solve problems. They want to hire people who act like they might fit in with the other generations of people on the team.
I know people like Jack. Heck, I am married to someone like Jack. He comes at the modern world snarling how much better it was when he was younger, swearing because he can’t figure out how to find voicemail on his new, mandatory Blackberry, refusing to use Salesforce.com because it is time-consuming, and reluctant to have a LinkedIn account or use Facebook because it is a “stupid waste of time and invasion of my privacy”. What kind of impression does that leave with a hiring manager?
So, is it age discrimination? Perhaps. But more likely it is a combination of a poorly constructed search campaign mixed with fear and loathing about the modern era that makes a hiring manager reluctant to take a risk that someone like Jack will mess up the careful balance she is building among four generations already working on her team.
NEXT: How to approach the job market as a vital mature people!