by Chris Swan
Feb 22 2017
Perfect timing! Here I was thinking about the topic of ageism in the workplace, when my wife suggested that we watch “The Intern.” I was not familiar with the story, but I quickly noted the relevance. The movie is about a 70-year-old (Robert De Niro) intern working at a start-up clothing retailer in Brooklyn. Assigned to a role under the friendly, but overly-busy CEO (Anne Hathaway), De Niro played a highly professional intern with 40-years of executive experience. Due to his noticeably calm and thoughtful demeanor compared to many others in the business, Anne Hathaway’s character eventually decides to reassign her intern because he is too “observant.”
Even though “The Intern” is just a movie, it still conveys valuable and translatable themes for the real world. Being mindful of others, going above and beyond on delivering what they need, and maintaining a sense of decorum go a long way in overcoming discrimination. Even while attempting to fight ageism, the movie grappled with discrimination in other ways, such as when it portrayed an older woman as less capable in the workplace. Rather than villainize others in the office, the De Niro character focused on the aspects of his job that were within his control, and tried to overcome the common stereotypes.
Imagine a world in which personal factors like gender, appearance, age, religion, or sexual preference did not matter. Decisions would be made strictly upon one’s accomplishments, probable impact, and perceived potential. The problem with humans is that we are instinctual creatures, so we learn to trust our gut decisions. When confronted with a business judgement, strategy options, or personnel choices, we combine intuition with imperfect data to predict which outcome is most likely or least painful. Hiring decisions are among the most subjective and risky decisions organizations make. Executives are challenged to decide on a candidate with limited insight on past performance and personality, and consequently choose poorly at times.
Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for showing the world how biases within our subconscious play a role in our daily lives, including hiring practices. Older workers must often overcome stereotypes, such as an assumption that they are more financially secure than younger folks or that they are weak in the use of technology. In addition, older workers may have served in an executive position in the past, so hiring managers may feel concern that the candidate will not be as satisfied performing in an individual contributor role.
So what can older workers do to avoid stereotypes and ageism, remain valued, and improve their chances for landing a new role?
- Step out of your comfort zone. As an older person, myself, keeping up with the 20 or 30 somethings can be a challenge. They enter the workforce with fewer preconceptions that we have developed over the years, and they are more comfortable with change. Invite new perspectives from younger colleagues who will push you. Be deferential, and listen actively – having the humility to learn from a younger employee will pay off when they force you to think in new ways.
- Look at your resume for signs of age, and I am not referring to dates here. If you organized the victory parade for your college football team in 1978, that’s great! But it’s probably time to remove it from your resume.
- Avoid dwelling on what used to be, except where you can draw direct relevance to today. Working at a bank 1980 might be irrelevant today with how much has changed and can be removed from a resume, whereas leading a bank through de-regulation would be an experience and skill-set that could be applied to an evolving financial ecosystem today.
- Some older workers might be concerned about including dates on their resume. I recommend including them; in the world of the internet, people will ultimately discover your approximate age, and it can be an extra hurdle for companies to determine your relative age via vague references.
- Keep your resume concise. Clearly, older workers will have more experience than their 30-year-old counterparts and a longer resume to match, but hiring managers still need to read everything quickly. Keep your resume to 2-3 pages and cover letter to ½ a page. This will force you to consider only the most pertinent aspects of your professional experience.
- Make it relevant. Stop telling the hiring managers unimportant details that do not pertain to the position. The more the details fit the job requirements, the better. I tell candidates all the time that it is important to hit hiring managers over the head with their relevance. Does this mean you need to rework your resume for every opportunity? Probably. Is it worth it? Absolutely!
- Stay flexible about compensation. Some companies may want to pay an older executive more for their superior experience, while other companies would prefer to pay younger executives a higher compensation for the likelihood of longer tenure.
As older workers, our strength is in our maturity. We need to take responsibility for being the “adults” in the room, particularly when the going is rough and everyone else is gloomy. You have been here before (perhaps several times), so you know how to weather the storm. Help others right the ship while staying positive.
Some other tips on using your enhanced experience as a positive:
- A 55+ executive told me that he focuses on delivering on his promises, commenting, “Funny how no one worries about my age.” If you do great work, that will be recognized above all else.
- Use your experience as an advantage. Offer to mentor younger employees or executives, and be a sounding board for emerging leaders. This is your opportunity to pass on your knowledge to the next generation, groom rising stars, and help those coming behind you.
- Use your experience to branch out. Volunteer to sit on a Board of Directors for a non-profit, or take opportunities to expand your professional network by advising past employers or clients.
- Stay positive. This is not just for older workers, but as we age, we need to make sure we are always putting our best foot forward. It is the same thing your mentor told you 30 years ago, and now you get to remind everyone when times get tough.
- Learn something new. Go back to school for additional classes, dig into some of the areas you find confusing, or finally explore a side topic you never made time for. Young people are awesome; they will jump in and help you if you show a willingness to listen, learn, and apply what you have been told or shown. It is the same thing we want from young people when we try to teach them. I recently started an executive MBA program in Chicago so I could round out my business experience after running my own firm for 22+ years.
Clearly, if you are mentally, physically, or financially injured because of unfair treatment due to your age, you may have a case for legal action. However, in the vast scheme of life those moments tend to be break-even events; even if you win a settlement, the time, effort, and distraction from your other activities may diminish the value of your win.
The world is a better place when we all treat each other with respect and fairness. Even if you cannot counteract every stereotype, remembering to utilize your age as a strength can make a tremendous difference.