[EDITORIAL NOTE: Marion Vermazen of Marion's Blog also runs the Marion Vermazen Podcast in which she has "conversations with interesting people." Apparently she thinks I am one of them and yesterday, she interviewed me. When we recorded it via Skype, Crabby Old Lady was still writing today's post, so there is some crossover between the interview and her her topic today. You can listen to it here.]
Synchronicity stepped into Crabby Old Lady's life yesterday. Just as she was having a private snit over what must be the ten thousandth article she has read with execrable advice for older job seekers, an email arrived from a friend who, at age almost 64, was laid off on Monday.
Crabby's heart sank. She has been there. At the same age. But, unlike her friend, in a still booming economy. Even then, she learned to recognize that look on the faces of 20- and 30-something hiring managers - the look that means for god's sake, I can't be expected to hire grandma, now can I, so let's get this over with as fast as possible, you old bat.
Crabby is painfully helpless in regard to her friend's predicament, but she can rant, and that she will.
Without exception, every story purporting to advise elders on overcoming age discrimination when looking for work contains the same directives:
- Prove you are tech savvy
- Update your wardrobe
- Be energetic
- Have a positive attitude
- Get a modern haircut and stylish pair of glasses
Some years ago, Crabby bumped into one online job search “expert” who recommended facelifts for older job seekers. That odious suggestion aside, how do these patronizing advice givers think old people have survived in the workplace for the past 30 or 40 years without sharp skills and appropriate demeanor. Technology? Fifty- and 60-something job seekers haven't been on Mars for the past two decades and computers have been commonplace in the work environment for just about that long. Older workers know how to use them and in fact, they invented at least half the technologies young people use.
As to personal style, if Crabby is expected to accept kids wearing flips-flops to work (See The New York Times), she thinks young workers' tender, cultural sensibilities can be adjusted to accommodate an older worker wearing aviator frames.
But the most infuriating stroke is the advice givers' reversal of responsibility in hiring. Nowhere do they (or much of anyone else) acknowledge or discuss the contemptible behavior of employers in giving the bum's rush to older applicants. Instead, they tacitly accept age discrimination as the norm to which older workers must meekly submit while turning cartwheels to pretend it isn't in play.
Although there are some letter-of-the-law websites for companies in regard to hiring, they are often about not getting caught at age discrimination than fairness or ethical behavior. And it is easy to find detailed instructions for hiring young workers. Here's an excerpt from one Crabby Old Lady located in fewer than ten seconds that doesn't even nod at the legal requirement to not discriminate:
“What can an organization do to find more qualified young workers and then identify them effectively and quickly?
“Simplify the application process. To first attract and then actually hire young talent, making the entire application process as convenient as possible is critical.”
This screams for a dive into the archives to retrieve The TGB Bias Test in which ageist references are replaced with words related to sexism and racism. As in:
“What can an organization do to find more qualified white workers...”
“To first attract and then actually hire male talent...”
Ridiculous, right? No one would write those sentences. But it IS acceptable when it is about old people. There is no uproar, no calling out. No one cares. Yet the weird perversity of age discrimination is that it works against young people too. As we live longer, healthier lives, it is the young who, through increased taxes, will be required to support competent, experienced elders who could be supporting themselves and paying taxes but have been locked out of the workforce by age discrimination. How dumb is that?
Has Crabby mentioned that age discrimination is illegal? She won't bore you with the details of the U.S. Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). You can find a short overview of the Act at Wikipedia. Aside from a few stated exceptions, it prohibits discriminatory preference for the young. But it is not effective.
The ADEA provides little protection for older workers. Employers are adept at circumventing the requirements of the statute and should someone who believes he or she has been discriminated against sue, corporations have staff attorneys who get paid no matter what they do and can soon bankrupt a plaintiff paying a private attorney $500 or more an hour.
Usually, however, lawsuits are not pursued because it is nearly impossible to prove age discrimination in hiring. No one ever tells an applicant outright that he or she is too old, although “overqualified” is a well-known euphemism for the same thing.
Mostly you know you will be rejected for being too old through the subtleties of body language, a disinterested attitude or, as happened once to Crabby Old Lady, a young interviewer who pats your forearm and says, “Tell me about your life goals, dearie.” None of it is provable in court as discrimination, but you know it when it happens to you.
Crabby Old Lady saw enough of it that before she gave up looking for work four years ago, she developed a tactic for such moments in interviews when she knew she had nothing left to lose. Crabby's friend, Rick Gillis, liked it well enough to include it in his new book, The Real Secret to Finding a Job:
Look your interviewer straight in the eye, don't blink and in your most pleasant, professional voice, ask:
- Does this company maintain a mixed-age workplace?
- How do you weigh the skills of younger and older workers in deciding whom to hire?
- How do you train young managers in dealing with subordinates who are old enough to be their parents and grandparents?
- Is my age an impediment to being hired at this company?
Rick maintains that asking these direct questions in the right circumstances may turn around the interview, that you may be seen as a no-nonsense person they could use. Crabby never got another interview after she developed this exchange, but it sure made her feel better to have it in her back pocket should the need arise.
We are living in tough employment times that probably won't get better soon, but that doesn't mean age discrimination should not be challenged. Let Crabby be clear: it is not the job applicant's responsibility to fool employers into thinking he or she is young – none of that idiotic, cosmetic advice works anyway. But it is the employer's responsibility to hire fairly.
Crabby Old Lady fears for her friend's job prospects. Isn't it time the blame for age discrimination is placed where it belongs and something is done about it?
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: The Shock of a Lifetime