Let’s say you’ve been a dynamic student at your high school, and have a volunteering portfolio that would be the envy of many professionals currently on the job market. Graduation is just a few months away, and you’re looking to the future and your first job. You send résumé after résumé out, with no results.
Or… what if you are a mid-level manager who has been in the workplace more than 20 years, and have a work history listed going back 25 years. Same feedback… no interviews.
What is exactly going on here? And more importantly, if this sounds like your situation, what do you do to address it?
Most employers will deny it, but age discrimination is rampant. On the younger end of the spectrum, some employers think that new entrants to the workplace are too young, green, inexperienced and immature. Or, that these younger workers will be goofing on Facebook or MySpace every time they are near a computer.
This perception does an incredible disservice to the young adults who have worked hard to build an impressive portfolio that sometimes can outshine that of a mid-career worker. The opportunities for leadership development, skills training and community service are so much more abundant now for students and young adults than ever previously available. This has resulted in more highly skilled and knowledgeable workers who are increasingly competitive in the workplace.
Conversely, on the other more mature end of the spectrum, experienced managers have had the opportunity to gain wisdom and knowledge from trial-and-error, and are battle-tested. But some employers see more mature workers as a possible salary liability, operating under the assumption that these prospective employees have higher salary demands, and this would lead to strained budgets.
Another miscalculation is that there is an assumption that older workers are not as tech-savvy. If 85-year-old grandmothers can learn how to do email, video conferencing, and instant messaging, certainly a competent mature worker has already adapted with technology to keep themselves competitive in today’s marketplace.
One way to work around the age discrimination issue (at least until the interview, when the prospective employer sees the interviewee in person) is to neutralize a résumé to avoid disclosing clues as to how old you are. Here are some ways to do this:
1) Evaluate your email address: Is your email address reflective of how old you are, what year you were born, when you graduated? Or is it topical, especially with pop culture? How old do you think the person would be who had this as the first part of their email address: ‘barrymanilowfan’? Or ‘Janes1953’? Or ‘lindsaylohanBFF’. These are all clues as to the age of the applicant. Stick with your name and random numbers or letters after as a professional email address.
2) What does your voicemail or answering machine message say? Is it professional? Or does it have music going on in the background and you are trying to be ‘cool’?
3) Listing education in your résumé: Unless you are going into a scientific, technical or educational field, your academic background should be listed later in your résumé... And don’t list your GPA or year that you graduated- these are other dead age giveaways. I’ve found that many college or school career centers tell students to list it first- which screams to a prospective employer: “Look! This is the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life- so far!” If you list it later, it provides the feel that this is something you’ve done, but you have had some other relevant experience that is also important.
4) How many years of work should you list on your résumé? The ‘sweet spot’ of employment time listed on a résumé should be between 15-20 years. Anything more than that, then you are also screaming out “I’ve been around for a really long time!” Think about it in these terms (and I have had many clients who have been loath to drop off a really important accomplishment from 25 years ago): How relevant is that accomplishment today? An employer might look at that and think: “Wow, you did that 25 years ago- how come you don’t have any more of them like that within the last five years- what’s the matter- losing your edge?” Keeping current on your work history and not dwelling on things far in the past is essential to keeping yourself competitive.
5) If you are just entering the workplace, you can combine your work and volunteer experience into a section called “RELEVANT HISTORY” which can encapsulate the skills and experience you have gained – which allows an employer to see the breadth of what you are capable of achieving.
The key is to think about your own value proposition:
If you are a younger worker, then you offer a prospective employer a fresh perspective, new ideas and enthusiasm.
More mature workers offer companies maturity, life experience, being in touch with their intuition and have proven their mettle on the battleground.
Each generation has a unique proposition to offer employers, and it is important to focus on continuing your education to build knowledge and skills, getting involved in industry associations, trade shows, business groups and memberships, and maintaining a positive, enthusiastic attitude. These are all important factors that are immediately reflected on your résumé, and can help skirt around age issues and allow employers to focus on the value that you would offer them as a new asset to their company.