Identifying Ageism in the Career Search (And What to Do About It)

Woman on laptop in job interview

You might be overqualified...

Even though this statement is padded with a compliment about your experience and abilities, this is one example of ageism in the hiring process. Unfortunately, this type of indirect ageism can be all-too-common, especially as you re-enter the workforce after a break or as a candidate in your 40s or 50s. 

👉 The Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) forbids age discrimination against people who are age 40 or older. It does not protect workers under 40, though some states have laws that protect younger workers.

Officially, ageism is the stereotyping and/or discrimination against individuals or groups based on age. In your career search, it shows up as either outright or unintentional biases you face as a result of your age, which can lead to you being overlooked for certain roles.

Anna McKay


Ask An Expert: Return to Work Edition
Because ageism primarily impacts older generations of women, we’ll focus much of our advice there. If you’re looking to explain a career gap or overcome bias while returning to work, watch this Master Class replay with Anna McKay.


Flipping the script on age and experience 

As an experienced applicant, you may face some common biases when searching for a new career, especially when pursuing opportunities that require less experience than you may currently have. Unfortunately, this is rarely, if ever, stated clearly because it’s illegal to discriminate against applicants aged 40 or older.

More often, you’ll encounter subtle biases. If your age is inferred on your resume or cover letter (such as listing your college graduation year), employers may avoid even reaching out about your application in the first place. Or, employers may simply fall off the radar after you have an interview, especially one that’s in-person or on video.

Here are some common statements you may hear from employers, and how you can reframe the conversation.

What You Might Hear How to Reframe the Facts
"Your experience deserves a higher salary than we have right now."

Your level of experience means you’ll hit the ground running which leads to a faster return on their investment.

You may also be willing to take less than “you’re worth” because you’ve already saved for retirement and/or financial gain isn’t your primary reason for working.

"You’re overqualified. You’ll be bored in this role."

Actually, you’ll be super-efficient and productive in this role thanks to your level of experience. You’ll be able to ramp up quickly and maintain high productivity. 

"You won’t fit in with the culture." 

You’re adaptable. Check out the company’s social media pages before your interview. Get a sense of the dress code and culture. Present yourself as the right fit from the first interaction with a company. 

"You have a lot of great skills, but we need someone with skills like… (i.e., social media, video and graphics experience, digital marketing) for the job."

Stress your comfort level with technology and focus on the skills you do possess. For example, share your ability to manage multiple projects simultaneously and add that you’re happy to adapt to their preferred project management software. 

When you’re able to respond confidently, you help correct the biases these recruiters are carrying. Even if you don’t land the job, your ability to express the value of your experience helps pave the way for another candidate who might face this bias as well. 

210201 AgeismOvercoming Ageism & "Career Gap" Traps During Your Job Search

See the above points in action in a Master Class virtual session where our hosts, Susan Rietano Davey and Kelley Biskupiak, role-play several of these objections. Watch now

Identify your own biases

The average age of a new business owner is over 50 years old, and recent years have seen explosive growth in the number of women-owned businesses. Women with experience, like you, have a lot to add in the workforce. But, it’s extremely common to believe the narrative in our own minds that we’re too old for a specific role. 

Common (incorrect!) internal biases:

I look too old in my LinkedIn profile picture

I can't learn this social media stuff

I'm too old to start my own business

I can't contact this recruiter with a huge gap on my resume

Change the tone

Follow these two steps to identify and overcome your own biases that are standing in the way of a successful career search:

    1. Acknowledge: Take a moment to assess your own self-talk. Without judgment, write down a few of the things you say about yourself as you review job listings. 
    2. Reframe: Instead of focusing on what you can’t offer, focus on what you do bring to the table. Instead of saying to yourself, “I’ll be older than everyone else on my team”, say, “I bring a lot of experience into the team and can help others ramp up quickly.”

Your experience makes you unique

Be your own biggest cheerleader in your job search, regardless of your age. When you feel confident in what you bring to the table, it’s easier to express this to employers. If you’ve experienced ageism in your job search, it’s easy to feel defeated and begin to believe these lies. 

Take a moment to interview yourself! Ask yourself, why are you the right fit for the corporate culture? What experiences do you have that make it easier for you to step right into this new role? What’s your biggest strength in the workplace and how does that make you the best fit?

Tips for job search success

When you begin your job search, be ready to:

💪 Champion your experience: Your level of experience is one of your biggest assets to a potential employer. Practice a few statements about how this amount of experience allows you to be more productive, work well across multiple teams and manage deadlines.

🔗 Connect the dots for a recruiter: It’s up to you to sell your story and speak confidently about the benefits of your work history, even your Mom Pause.

🤝 Step outside your networking bubble: If your current network is made primarily of people with your level of experience or higher, you may be missing out on key connections who are actually doing the hiring at companies you’d like to work for. Your network should reflect the population you’ll be working most closely with see if there are any opportunities to connect with friends of your children.

Stand out above the crowd

Don’t be afraid to move beyond online job applications and reach out to a recruiter or hiring manager directly or to follow up first after an interview. This expresses confidence in yourself and proactively shows you are serious about the opportunity.

If you aren’t sure what to say when reaching out, revisit your “Why Me?” statement to center yourself on what makes you a good fit for the role. And make sure you are up-to-date on tips for networking basics to avoid any common pitfalls when reaching out to new contacts.

Finally, don’t forget to leverage any of your personal connections you’ve fostered over the years. A warm introduction is almost always more successful than a cold reach-out.

Be open and flexible

Sometimes, you’ll find more success in your job search if you begin to think a bit unconventionally about where you can get and receive value. Employers may be more likely to hire you for specific projects, contract or temporary work, or parental or sick leave coverage. These roles are a great way for you to audition an employer and for them to see what it’s like to work with you, too. As more and more employers make the shift to remote and flex work arrangements, starting out slowly can be a great way to get your foot in the door and eventually take on a larger role. Keep your ear to the ground for these unique opportunities, and step into them with confidence knowing your experience is an incredible asset that the right employers will identify and encourage. 

Experience is a benefit

The most effective way to combat ageism in your job search is to bring the focus to your experience and value, not your time in the workforce. Be confident in what you can bring to a role and that confidence will come through in your interviews.

Even if you don’t move forward in the interview process at first, you can use the experience as a learning opportunity. Practice your responses to any concerns that come up regularly and figure out when you should address them. That way you’ll be prepared to confidently address them. Never forget, your experience is an incredible asset to the right team. 

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