I have half a dozen clients searching for jobs and bumping into walls of ageism. They ask me for guidance: should they eliminate dates from their resume; should they try to dress younger; should they remove college from their LinkedIn profile? It’s stunning how many of these talented and experienced people are turned away. If it were rare, I’d say it’s the candidate. But I’ve coached so many people with the same situation and the thread of commonality is age. After 30 years of hiring, managing, firing and coaching, I’ve seen enough to know when turning away a candidate is valid and when it’s some sort of discrimination. Have you read Louis Loizou’s article on LinkedIn? It’s called, “I’m not 54. I’m 22 with 32 years experience.” Mr. Loizou is a freelance Creative Director and his post went viral because so many people are experiencing this right now. His article cuts to the core of the issue of ageism in the creative industry. He says, “Let’s put things into perspective here. With the recent and very welcome push for sexual equality, the time is also right to address the inequality of blatant ageism in design and advertising.” I agree. The question is, how to address it?
We need to start with a few facts:
When a system is built to sort resumes by dates, thereby eliminating older candidates, it is discrimination.
When a candidate is told that she is over qualified, it is likely discrimination.
When interview questions shift from candidate qualifications to snooping around to determine the candidate’s age, that is on the edge of discrimination.
When the interviewer’s eyes glaze over the minute the candidate walks in and the interviewer hesitatingly says, “Oh. I thought you were, um, well, (laugh) younger!” That is pointing directly at discrimination.
Here’s another fact. Our society dismisses those who’ve managed to stick it out and be alive. Really, it’s that simple. The over 50’s have succeeded at staying alive in a world where there is no guarantee. Instead of valuing the experience that comes with having lived past 50, our society shuns them. I propose that this is connected to fear. Possibly even fear of mortality. We ask people, specifically women, over 50 to disappear. We make every effort to have these people become invisible. We do not want to see over 50’s as human – desirous, talented, or worthy of our attention or investment.
To clarify, I am not saying that every candidate over 50 is the perfect hire. There are plenty of unqualified people at every age, including the over 50’s. I’m also not saying that all under 50’s are ageist, discriminating fools. What I am saying is that I see a lot of people making choices that speak to discrimination and I think it’s because they’re taught, and expected, to value youth over experience. Every form of marketing teaches us that youth is better than aging. In physical manifestation and mental capacity, the messages say young is good; old is bad.
Old is a funny word these days. It can mean 52 or 92 years of age. If you’re 52, you likely have a good 35 years more of fulfilling dreams. Did I just say dreams? Yes! A 52 year old can dream about an exciting new job or a new career entirely. Think of someone in your life who is over 50. Imagine what this person will be doing for the next 35 years. Thirty five years. T h i r t y f i v e. That’s a LOT of years in which to create, build, and contribute to society. To quote my 82 year old father, “I’m not dead yet!” (And Thank God for that.) To prove my point, look at this:
At 52, Sir Francis Chichester sailed around the world alone in a 53-foot boat normally manned by a crew of six.
At 53, Walter Hunt, an inventor, patented the safety pin.
At 54, Annie Jump Cannon became the ﬁrst astronomer to classify the stars according to spectral type.
At 56, Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China.
At 58, Sony chairman Akio Morita introduced the Sony Walkman, an idea no one seemed to like at the time.
At 59, “Satchel” Paige became the oldest Major League baseball player.
At 62, J.R.R. Tolkien published the ﬁrst volume of his fantasy series, “Lord of the Rings.”
At 66, Noah Webster completed his monumental “American Dictionary of the English Language.”
At 68, the English experimentalist Sir William Crookes began investigating radioactivity and invented a device for detecting alpha particles.
At 70, Cornelius Vanderbilt began buying railroads.
At 77, John Glenn became the oldest person to go into space.
At 78, Chevalier de Lamarck proposed a new theory of the evolutionary process, claiming that acquired characteristics can be transmitted to offspring.
At 81, Bill Painter became the oldest person to reach the 14,411-foot summit of Mt. Rainier.
At 82, William Ivy Baldwin became the oldest tightrope walker, crossing the South Boulder Canyon in Colorado on a 320-foot wire.
At 85, Theodor Mommsen became the oldest person to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature.
At 86, Katherine Pelton swam the 200-meter butterﬂy in 3 minutes, 1.14 seconds, beating the men’s world record for that age group by over 20 seconds.
At 88, Michelangelo created the architectural plans for the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli.
At 91, Allan Stewart of New South Wales completed a Bachelor of Law degree from the University of New England.
At 93, P.G. Wodehouse worked on his 97th novel, was knighted and died.
At 96, Harry Bernstein published his ﬁrst book, “The Invisible Wall,” three years after he started writing to cope with loneliness after his wife of 70 years, Ruby, passed away.
At 97, Martin Miller was still working fulltime as a lobbyist on behalf of beneﬁts for seniors.
At 98, Beatrice Wood, a ceramist, exhibited her latest work.
At 99, Teiichi Igarashi climbed Mt. Fuji.*
Are you as inspired as I am? Retirement is set at 65, but very few people retire then. Think about it. We live longer than ever before and have vibrantly working minds and bodies. What a miracle it is! What a blessing. And what a challenge it is to value your years when everything and everyone around you is saying you should disappear. Now add the pressure of earning more income to help you enjoy your deliciously long life, but no one will hire you.
I remember being a 21 year old art student with teachers who were professionals in the graphic design business. Some were kind, but mostly it was clear that they saw us as competition. We felt it in their eyes and the way they spoke to us. It was an unpleasant and confusing experience. I understood it conceptually back then, but now I get it. I really get it. I don’t condone their behavior – and I understand it. That – understanding – is the main challenge in changing how we treat our over 50’s in the workplace. It’s hard to relate to being over 50 and wanting to do good work for another 30 years when you’re 32 years old and only see grey hair and laugh lines. It’s time to teach the young and over 50’s to see each other. I mean SEE each other. Go past the physical and connect with the real person behind the wrinkles and taut skin. Both ends of the spectrum, and every age in between, have gifts to share. No single age is better than another. Every age brings its pros and cons. The gift of being 21 is different from the gift of being 34, 46, 59, 68, or 77. Each age has its bonuses and challenges. The young bring excitement, fresh eyes, and little context in which to limit thinking. As we age, we learn compassion, patience, tolerance, and the ability to laugh at ourselves.
Compassionate Managers are aware of the instinct to judge because of age. They do it with full awareness until they decide to stop. It’s no fun any way you slice it and it’s definitely not productive. Refuse to belittle someone for their lack of experience or their old-fashioned ways. Take steps to help others recognize the gifts everyone brings, at whatever age they’re at. Point out the benefit of that fresh viewpoint or that seasoned one, create a department list of bonuses across the ages, set up mentorship across the ages where the expectation is mutual mentoring- the new by the seasoned and the seasoned by the new. Collaborate across the years and see what comes up with this open and welcoming approach to age differences. Recognizing the gifts of each age sets an expectation of how someone can treat us, including how we treat ourselves. Every person has gifts. A leader’s responsibility is to seek that gift and enable it to flourish in the best interest of the company. Age and what we know as it relates to our age is a gift. It’s a matter of perception and that’s completely within our control. Model this and your team will follow.
Orchestra auditions are done behind a wall so the conductor can’t see age or gender or any details beyond talent. Embrace this thinking. Start by seeking qualified candidates of all ages. Then hire the eager candidate, regardless of age. Over 50’s can learn; the brain doesn’t freeze at 36. It is elastic and the candidate in front of you wants to grow, expand, and evolve. She’s not dead yet by any stretch of the imagination. See her.
p.s. Thank you to LouisIsCreative for your powerful post.
*(Excerpt from http://www.businessinsider.com/100-amazing-accomplishments-achieved-at-every-age-2014-3 and “Edgy Conversations: How Ordinary People Can Achieve Outrageous Success.” Copyright © 2013 by Daniel E. Waldschmidt. All rights reserved.)