Dear “Advice Sister” Alison: I will be receiving my bachelor’s degree this year, after nearly ten years of going part-time. During this time I’ve been employed as Administrative Assistant. I am eager to pursue a career with my newly acquired degree, but I’m not all that young anymore, and I’ll be competing with younger graduates right out of school. I know that these candidates are going to be cheaper, and the companies feel that I am not as flexible and open minded as someone who is a “blank slate” that they can shape and mold to their way of thinking. But I can be flexible, really i can! I’ve already had an experience where an interviewer commented: “We’re kind of a fun loving, trendy group, and honestly, I am not sure you’d be all that comfortable here.” I felt humiliated because I knew it was his way of saying my age was a turnoff. Do you have any suggestions that would help me compete with those new and younger graduates in today’s job market?
ALISON ANSWERS: First, let me congratulate you on sticking it out and getting your degree. Actions speak louder than louder than words in this case. Your ability to stay motivated and not give up for nearly a decade to reach your goal shows initiative and is quite impressive. Use this as a major sales point with prospective employers.
Your question is not a new one, I’ve received others like it over the years, but it’s timely, because of a new television show called “Younger,” created and produced by Darren Star, is set to premiere this March. The focus is Liza, a 40-year-old recently divorced mother having a difficult time getting a job because of her age. Ultimately, she decides to get a makeover in order to look like she is in her mid-twenties and lands a job as an assistant in a publishing firm (I’m not saying any more). I think this kind of thing plays upon every woman’s fear that if she doesn’t look and act like a 20-something, she’ll never work again after age 40 unless she does something desperate and drastic. Well,. it is not true.
Let’s put your situation in perspective: Being young doesn’t always mean that someone is more marketable than you are — it really depends on personality, skills, the type of company you want to work for, and the type of job you’re seeking. You now have a college degree, and it wasn’t just “handed” to you. You got where you are with hard work. That’s something any employer can understand, verify, and respect. In other words, you are “proven” while a lot of those younger job seekers you are so worried about, still have nothing much to show for themselves. Corporate culture being what it is, I’ve heard people with the power to hire complain that “young people” are so into themselves and feel so entitled, they aren’t appealing as new employees. They don’t want to have to coddle these people, who have limited social skills because they are more accustomed to texting than actually communicating by phone or in person with clients or customers. On the other hand, there are others who say that older people don’t think outside of the box, and aren’t “snarky” or don’t have the kind of forward-looking, or “team” mentality that their office environment demands.
Certain industries (e.g. Internet, high-tech, fashion and entertainment) tend to attract younger people for the entry level to middle-management jobs, but look on LinkedIn and you’ll find that the more mature and experienced people are in the most responsible positions. They want people around them that are self-starters, that they can rely on, and communicate with. Consider too, that while older, more experienced workers sometimes complain that the youngsters are willing to work for less money and are generally considered more open-minded and flexible, those younger people complain that more mature job seekers like you put them at a disadvantage because a lot of employers want employees who can hit the ground running without training costs or a learning curve.
I know there is ageism in the job market as there is in the world, in general. It is a shame, and we all have a responsibility to be role models to help this kind of nonsense, end. But if you find yourself in front of a cretin who lets says s/he thinks you can’t be “fresh *& innovative” and it’s just another way of telling you that you are too “mom-ish” to join her fun loving crowd of under 30-somethings, you have to think about what is motivating the interviewer.
It is illegal to directly ask someone’s age, and you should be prepared to deflect responses about illegal questions that are not in your best interests. In the United States, illegal questions are those that might allow an employer to discriminate against any person on the basis of sex, age, race, national origin, religion, or disability. Be aware of indirect questioning that gets the illegal question out there, such as “Do you have religious beliefs that make it impossible for you to work on Saturdays?” or “how old are your children?” But these questions can also be rephrased in more general terms, such as (in the case of Saturday work): “This job requires on Saturdays. Will this be a problem for you?” They also cannot ask you directly about your age, but they can ask you indirect questions that might give them a clue as to what generation you belong to such as “do you remember where you were on the day the first man was launched into space?”. Other illegal and inappropriate questions have to do with sexual orientation, nationality, and some highly personal subjects such as your health or physical characteristics.
When you get questions like these, the key to winning over” an interviewer who crosses the line is to keep your cool and do your best not to get angry, antagonistic or frazzled. Sometimes an interviewer asks leading or illegal questions just because s/he is either an inept person who really doesn’t know what s/he is doing (that’s actually the majority) or wants to see how you handle stress. These types of interview situations are uncomfortable, but they also give you the chance to show that they can’t rattle you. And the truth is, even if you have the right skills, you might not always be the best fit for a company. If you are a mature mom, for example and you interview for a sales position in a company that caters to teens with cutting-edge style, and the young staff parties hard together after work (and you need to be free to pick up your child from school) you probably won’t be successful there even if have the right technical skills. No, you can’t win them all.
In the upcoming television show “Younger” the lead character gets highlights and changes her image to fit the part of a 20-something instead of the 40-something she really is. I don’t think this makes much sense, but making sure that you look appropriate and current, does. And that goes for your skills, as well. If you don’t know how to use basic computer programs, spreadsheets, and phone apps, you won’t look appealing to most employers, so update those skills. It is good to be yourself, but you have to be part of the modern world, too. Check out social media, know something about popular culture, and sell yourself as someone is not an “age” but a confident, enthusiastic, creative thinking, flexible, intelligent, personable employee who will do whatever it takes to get the job done.