Megan Greenwell, a columnist for The New York Times answers two workplace questions about how to deal with age discrimination in the work space.
Q from “London”: I am an advertising creative who has been unemployed for more than six months. I’m having difficulty finding a full-time position because being in my ’50s and I fear that I’ve been thrown out with the trash in favour of new blood.
No matter how I tailor my job applications, cover letters and CV with clever approaches, I can’t get my foot in the door, only compliments on my videos or LinkedIn connections.
I’ve sent solicited and unsolicited applications to more than 100 companies, but no luck. Some of this could be because I haven’t recently won any major industry awards, which carries weight in this competitive industry, or maybe the positions are genuinely filled.
I can’t hide my experience, nor can I turn back the clock. Time and money are now running out.
Q from “New York”: People need to stop prefacing workplace conversations with older people with terms like “Hon”, “Dear”, or “Sweetie”. Ageism is real and despicable. It is becoming more and more prevalent.
Those of us who are still in the workforce particularly loathe those terms. At 66, I am in excellent health. I dress well, walk fast to my workplace and pride myself on every compliment.
Yet too many professionals presume I am hard of hearing, frail, forgetful or otherwise impaired, to the point where they address me as one would a small child. Could it be the silver bob?
Of course I have email. And yes, I actually would prefer text, and yes, I am going to swirl around you fast enough on my sneaker-clad feet to make you spin if you do not stop texting and crawling along the road.
A: I know I’m supposed to be the expert here and behave professionally, but I have never called anyone “Sweetie” and aspire to both a chic silver bob and your level of pithy and acerbic writing.
I have a solid archive of questions about age discrimination and few good answers. It is a huge issue and it is absurdly difficult to fight, truly a terrible combination for an advice columnist.
New York, you’re surely right that you’re being patronised for your age and London, you’re surely right that your age unfairly plays into how your job applications are evaluated.
The problem, as I learnt when I turned to an outside expert for guidance, is that age discrimination is difficult to prove, by design.
A 2009 Supreme Court decision endorsed a higher standard for showing that advanced age is the cause of different treatment in the workplace than the threshold for other types of discrimination.
As a society, and I include the judiciary, we seem to view age discrimination as less serious and less wrong than other forms of discrimination because an employer has a right to run their business the way they want,” says Laurie McCann, a senior attorney.
London, you’re in the toughest possible position because you can’t say for sure that any company discriminated against you, just that the pattern seems clear.
“Hiring discrimination is the most difficult to prove because you rarely have any evidence,” McCann said. “You don’t know who got hired instead of you, you don’t have the comparison of if they’re younger or less qualified.”
So what is an older person who still has bills to pay supposed to do?
Even seemingly small changes can help. McCann’s advice is to keep up with trends in CV writing. For example, opening with a career objective is outdated, she said.
Emphasise your technological skills to the point of overkill; develop a social media presence. Leave graduation dates and other giveaways out of your CV so you don’t make it easy for employers to reject you.
Some online hiring platforms won’t allow you to move through the system without including those dates, but avoid them whenever possible.
Everyone can take a lesson from New York. Fight back when someone makes prejudicial assumptions or treats you unfairly at work.
Frustratingly, none of these practical strategies address the deeper societal issue. “We haven’t made many inroads in fighting those stereotypes (that older workers) are not flexible, that they’re stuck in their ways,” said McCann.
Neither of you can solve that problem on your own, so find some allies. London, start canvassing acquaintances in your field and age cohort about how they got their jobs, and whether their companies are hiring. Consider forming a support group that lobbies for change.
Volunteer to coach and mentor others in your industry. That will expand your network, provide another impressive line for your CV and show that you still have some irreplaceable skills.
While you have no obligation to keep things in perspective when you’re trying to find a job, try to remember that the youth are not the enemy. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put them in their place when they suggest you aren’t fluent in emoji, New York, but they’re frustrated by being patronised and passed over, too.
McCann has a 22-year-old daughter who’s looking for a job, and she says she’s been struck by how similar her experience is to those of the age discrimination plaintiffs.
We can only burn down the system if we all work together.
Megan Greenwell is the editor of Wired.com.