Ageism in the workplace remains an issue

Is a number keeping you from getting ahead, staying employed or finding that next opportunity? In 2009, we looked at how ageism affects people’s careers. It’s now 2012, and not much seems to have changed.

Remember the case of Arlene Phillips, then 66-year-old judge on a popular UK dancing show replaced by a host less than half her age? Three years later, the BBC still faces accusations of ageism. The UK Telegraph reports there are now up 30 lawsuits involving ageism and sexism pending against the organization. One former presenter, Miriam O’Reilly, successfully sued the BBC and won a six-figure settlement.

Of course, it isn’t just the entertainment industry that’s affected. Stories like those of Adina Lebo and Barry Everatt aren’t uncommon — both were let go from their jobs after decades of employment and faced challenges trying to find meaningful work.

And then there was the 2009 report about a rise in age-related discrimination claims filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EECO). Cases are still on the rise, according to the latest statistics. In 2009, 22,778 charges were filed under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (which protects workers age 40 and over). In 2011, that number rose to 23,465.

But take these numbers with a grain of salt. Experts warn they only represent the formal complaints workers have filed — the actual number of cases could be much higher. Many workers don’t step forward because age discrimination is so difficult to prove, especially when it occurs during the hiring process. Of the cases filed with the EEOC, only about one sixth of cases end with a “merit resolution” — that is, an outcome that’s favourable for the employee (like a cash settlement or a successful conciliation).

“Ageism in the workplace is still with us despite major gains over the years,” says Susan Eng, Vice President of Advocacy at CARP. “CARP was successful in getting mandatory retirement prohibited at the federal level as it had done at the provincial level. But that only begins the process of eliminating discriminatory practices.”

“Recognition that older workers bring a wealth of experience that could give an employer a competitive advantage and mentoring programs to allow older workers to share their knowledge would go a long way to countering the trend that older workers are losing their jobs for no other reason than that the employer has not taken the long view.”

What else hasn’t changed? Our population is still getting older. According to the latest census data, seniors (people age 65 and over) now make up a higher proportion of the population than ever before — and in a few years this group will be larger than the age 14 and under cohort. Over 42 per cent of our working age population (people ages 15 to 64) are between the ages of 45 and 64. About three in 10 people in Canada are members of the baby boomer generation.

Of course, the term “working age” is a bit of a misnomer. Survey after survey reports more people are working longer or are returning to the workforce after retirement. For some workers, it’s a financial necessity, but for others it’s a chance to stay engaged in a fulfilling career or try out a new opportunity.

Combating the unspoken stereotypes

Unfortunately, some employers don’t see older workers as an asset to their organizations — and their negative views can prevent skilled, qualified people from contributing. 

“They might not say it, but employers may be holding certain things against you,” says Mary Eileen Williams, veteran career counselor and author of Land the Job You Love: 10 Surefire Strategies for Jobseekers Over 50.

For instance, Williams warns some employers might be thinking:

– You don’t have the technical skills for the job. (Younger employees are often seen as being more tech-savvy than their older colleagues.)

– You won’t want to report to a younger boss. (Some employers assume older workers have an age bias against younger works too.)

– You’re tired, slow and unenthusiastic. (Younger workers are often seen as being more energetic and innovative.)

– You’re just marking time until you retire. (Why take the time and expense to train someone who doesn’t plan on staying long?)

– You have health problems that will require you to take more time off . (Or be a drain on employer insurance policies.)

Unfair? You bet — especially when experts note that there’s often more variation among workers in the same age group than there is between different groups.

So what can you do if you’re job hunting and worried your age might be a barrier? Here are some of Williams top tips:

Craft your applications accordingly. Time to rethink that resume so it provides the right amount of information about you — without giving too much away about your age. Williams says most applicants need only include the last 15-20 years of work experience, and it’s okay to list 20+ years working in a given field even if that number is a little higher.

You can also adapt the resume format to best suit your skills and experience. For example, a “hybrid” resume that combines elements of a functional resume and chronological resume can let you highlight your skills and accomplishments without risking information overload or leaving gaps. However, don’t try to hide too much in the process.

“Don’t create at resume that makes you look 28 if you’re actually 58,” warns Williams. “Otherwise employers will feel mislead when they meet you.”

(For more tips, see Make your resume work for you.)

Focus on networking. It’s good advice for job seekers of any age, but even more important for mature workers, says Williams. The longer you’ve been in the workforce, the better developed your professional network is — and the more likely you are to have connections who know people in decision-making positions.

“That personal reference speaks to your talent and work ethic. It’s like being pre-screened for an interview,” Williams says. “The older you are, the more likely you are to get your job through networking.”

Dress appropriately. Like it or not, how you look makes an impression. You don’t have to hide your grey hair, but an up-to-date hair style and makeup shows you’re current and “in touch”. The same goes for your outfit and shoes — if they’re well worn and dated, they’ll make you seem worn out and dated too. Dressing appropriately for the position and your body type can help you appear youthful and energetic.

Convey confidence. What about those worries about your health, energy and enthusiasm? What you wear and what you say is just part of the equation, says Williams. You can also convey energy, enthusiasm and confidence with non-verbal cues like good posture, a firm handshake and facial expressions. Always look your interviewer in the eye, she says, and open up your body language.

Address unspoken concerns. Chance are an employer isn’t going to directly ask how you feel about working with younger employees or reporting to a younger boss. Williams says mature job seekers can be proactive and bring up the topic in an interview. You can comment on the age-diverse workplace, for example, and say how you enjoy working with people of all ages and have learned a lot from younger colleagues. Likewise, if you have reported to a younger boss in the past, mention how its never been a problem for you.

What about the misconception that you’re killing time until retirement? Williams notes you can turn the tables by asking about opportunities for growth and training within the company.

Keep up with your technical skills — and show them off. Demonstrating a willingness to acquire new skills and keep current with technology can also help dispel some misconceptions about your age. Let interviewers know that technology is not a problem for you, and give examples of new skills and applications you’ve learned.

“If you don’t have the right computer skills, get them,” says Williams. “Try an online tutorial or a class. “

And perhaps the most important piece of advice: don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re “less than” because of your age. Williams reminds to focus on the positive — all the experience and skills you can bring to a position. At every step of the application process, remind potential employers that your skills and experience are just what they’re looking for.

It’s a little easy to get lost in the rhetoric about ageism in the workplace, but knowing about the potential stereotypes shouldn’t discourage you. Knowing about them means you can work to counteract them. As our population continues to age, you can bet age-related discrimination in the workforce isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

Additional sources: Huffington Post, NPR

Photo © Steven Frame

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