I recently spoke to a group of graduate students about what they perceive are barriers to securing the work they desire. The discussion did not go the way I anticipated. I specifically wanted to talk about closing skill gaps, which is a valid concern however many of these students were concerned about age discrimination. They felt that when an interviewer could identify their age (either visually when meeting them or because of a clue on their resume) they would quickly be dismissed from further consideration. 

There is no shortage of research on age discrimination.  The literature addressed the need to train HR professionals and hiring managers on age discrimination bias, either conscious or unconscious, which is an appropriate course of action (Kaufmann, Krings, Zebrowitz, & Sczesny, 2017; Gioaba & Krings, 2017).  In one study, facial age appearance was associated with in milliseconds by the interviewer as a basis for competency and health status. An older appearance triggered impressions of lower health and fitness; specifically lesser physical and cognitive fitness. This meant that older job applicants were perceived as not being able to handle complicated task or unable to quickly learn new skills (Kaufmann, Krings, Zebrowitz, & Sczesny, 2017). 

What exactly do I mean by older? The research I found was specifically about individuals 50 years of age and older.  To further demonstrate how statistically these findings hold true, approximately 45 percent of unemployed 55-64 year olds report being unemployed long term (27 weeks or longer) in comparison to 33 percent of 25-34 year olds. Yet by the year 2020, approximately 21 percent of the workforce will be 55- 65 years old (Barrington, 2015).

So how do applicants who are over 50 years of age, overcome and manage the age bias of an interviewer?  Some stereotypes likely to be encountered that an applicant needs to manage include: 1) being less technologically savvy; 2) unable to learn new skills quickly; 3) lack of adaptability, and; 4) inability to handle pressure. 

According to Gioaba and Krings (2017) an older applicant can utilize impression management (IM) tactics to overcome bias.  There are two classifying behaviors for these tactics: assertive and defensive. Assertive IM tactics are used to create favorable impressions while defensive tactics are used to repair or protect one’s image. The ability to master impression management  tactics will be key in your job search success rate. Tactics that can be used to counter these stereotypes in an interview are: 1) self-promotion; 2) actively contradicting adaptability stereotypes, and; 3) utilizing nonverbal behaviors, e.g., smiling, making eye contact,  nodding or other hand gestures which are associated with higher interview evaluations. 

What I would tell any client is that self-promotion is essential in an interview, especially if you are trying to counter age related stereotypes. It will be important either in an opening statement or throughout the interview to find a way to highlight achievements that came from successfully leveraging technology. That may sound something like, “I had great success in launching a product promotion utilizing social media outlets such as…” or “I met my sales numbers by meeting with my team in person or via video conference…”  

Questions that come up related to learning new skills or adaptability will also need to be managed in the interview so as to positively highlight your past success in a way that is directly attributable to your ability to be adaptable.  That may sound something like, “I learned and mastered the use of the company system and eventually became the go to person to help others who were struggling with the technology…”or “I started off as a member of the operations team and then was promoted to the compliance team because I quickly became proficient in…”

All this information may be disheartening, or perhaps validating of your past challenges but should also serve to give you hope that being armed with key image management tactics can help you to strategize for a successful interview. And if you are still disenchanted with the current situation you can also start to look for employers with positive hiring practices towards those of us in a more advanced age.  For example, Glassdoor listed and ranked 12 companies that proudly hire individuals over the age of 50:  https://www.glassdoor.com/blog/companies-hiring-over-50/ 

AARP also has great job search resources. Looking for a completely different career? Check out:

If you are struggling to break down these barriers and feel you need additional support, I can absolutely help you. Stay positive, learn more about how to overcome bias, and don’t give up! Happy job hunting!

Dr. Raya
[email protected]

Something good is about to happen!

Barrington, L. (2015). Ageism and Bias in the American Workplace. Generations, 39(3), 34–38. 

Gioaba, I. & Krings F. (2017). Impression Management in the Job Interview: An Effective Way of Mitigating Discrimination against Older Applicants? Frontiers in Psychology

Kaufmann, M., Krings F., Zebrowitz, L., & Sczesny, S. (2017). Age Bias in Selection Decisions: The Role of Facial Appearance and Fitness Impressions. Frontiers in Psychology.