With roughly 10% of Americans currently out of work, and a disproportionate number of these professionals just so happening to be Baby Boomers in the 46+ age bracket, it’s not surprising that the question of “age discrimination” is on a lot of peoples’ minds — and that many folks are worried about the impact such discrimination might have on their career prospects.

For those folks concerned about this issue, however, I’ve got a simple suggestion to make.  Ditch the “age discrimination” label entirely and switch to framing the phenomenon as “experience discrimination” instead.  Why?  Because I think this terminology is a lot closer to the reality of what’s taking place out there in the market — and will help you avoid falling into a dangerous, unproductive victim mentality.  Beyond a few unrepentant bigots, in other words, it’s not going to be your calendar age per se that bothers most hiring managers.  It’s going to be the number of years of experience you’ve amassed in your career to date and the employer’s fear that this much experience might mean 1) you want too much money; 2) you won’t be happy in a “lesser” job than you’ve held in the past; and 3) that you think you “know it all” and won’t be adaptable to new systems, processes, and ways of doing things.

Does anybody disagree with this assessment?  Does anybody truly think the primary reason older workers might have more trouble finding positions is because employers simply don’t like older people, in general?  Boy, I sure hope the world hasn’t come to this!  And it would take an awful lot of convincing for me to accept that this is the reality, versus holding to my contention that employers generally are worried about the consequences of having lots of experience, not age itself.

It’s a nuanced argument, for sure, but I believe reframing the concept in this fashion will help a lot of older, more experienced workers deal more effectively with this issue.  For starters, it provides immediate hope that we can overcome the obstacle in question, since while there’s not a single thing we can do about our age, aside from the occasional shot of Botox, we have infinitely more ability to take control over how we package, present, and explain our experience to employers.  Additionally, if we keep the discussion centered around our level of experience, and not age, we can proactively respond to an employer’s concerns without bringing the “A” word into the equation — and immediately raising the spectre of discrimination lawsuits.

My point-of-view on this issue was also borne out, anecdotally, at a recent professional networking event I attended.  When one attendee brought up the subject of age discrimination, expressing anger at the unfair bias he felt many employers displayed today against older candidates, one brave woman stood up and related the following story, in a nutshell:

While I hear what you’re saying, I don’t think this is really the case.  I’m 62 years old, myself, and recently had to hire my own replacement due to the fact that I was moving on to a new company.  We received hundreds of candidates in the application process and eventually narrowed the list down to two finalists.  One of the finalists was in her late fifties, while the second candidate was much younger and less experienced, at around 35 or so.  On paper, the older candidate had TONS more relevant experience and was clearly the obvious choice for us to bring on board.  And yet, after we conducted the series of interview rounds, every single person on the hiring team, including myself, agreed to extend the offer to the younger worker, instead.  Why?  Because the younger worker showed far more intellectual curiosity about the job, asked better questions, seemed to care about our needs more, and came across as much more interested and happy at the thought of doing this work for us.  The older candidate, on the other hand, seemed bored throughout the interview process and gave off the impression that she thought she already knew everything about our needs, was entitled to the job, and was hoping to just coast for a few more years into retirement.

Granted, not all older (aka more experienced) candidates have this mentality or give off these same impressions, but enough of them DO that it’s created a damaging stereotype you’ll have to take into account in your interview strategy, like it or not, if you have 20+ years of work history under your belt.  Again, though, it’s not an age thing.  It’s an experience thing.  Don’t let the employer form these kinds of impressions about you, right from the get-go.  Do your homework on the company.  Arrive full of energy and enthusiastic questions about the job.  Make sure your financial expectations are in line with current standards, not simply the number you’ve reached after 20-30 years of promotions, step-raises, and COLA increases.  And above all, demonstrate to the hiring manager, if they appear younger than you, that you fully respect their authority within the organization and aren’t discriminating against their youthfulness, in return!