In preparing for a recent presentation I gave on the topic of age discrimination, I uncovered two interesting bits of trivia that may surprise you

1)  Age discrimination IS actually legal in some respects (you can discriminate all you want against people in their teens, twenties, and thirties — you just can’t show bias against folks who are more than 40 years old)

2)  Companies CAN legally ask you about your age or birthday in the interview (it’s just immensely frowned upon by attorneys and HR departments, since it can be used to support claims of discrimination)

Surprised a bit, especially by the second one?  I was, too, since these realities fly in the face of much of the conventional wisdom I’ve heard on these subjects over the years.

This being said, age discrimination is definitely an issue that many out-of-work Americans continue to be highly concerned about, including a healthy percentage of my client base.  Time and time again, I encounter folks who tell me that they have repeatedly missed out on interviews and offers for jobs they felt they were well-qualified for — and in these cases, they naturally wonder how much of a role, if any, age played a role in the decision.  And the “not knowing” part of this can take a pretty corrosive toll on the person’s confidence, from what I’ve witnessed.

So what’s my take on this phenomenon and the true level of impact it has today?  While I don’t always attract admirers for saying so, I’ve written about the subject a number of times in the past and have suggested that a certain percentage of what appears to be age discrimination on the surface is, in my opinion, more likely to be “experience” discrimination.  See my past article here for an explanation of this distinction.  While I know it’s a fine line, many of the employers I talk to (including those I feel would truly be honest about the issue) say that they will frequently pass on older candidates not because of their age, per se, but because the level of the job appears to be well below the level of position the candidate has held previously.  As a result, they worry that the highly experienced candidate (whether this person is 32, 52, or 72 years old) will be bored, unchallenged, and not very happy in the role in question — and/or be at high risk of jumping ship for a better assignment elsewhere.

Is this notion of “being overqualified” the exact same thing in your book as age discrimination?  If so, I probably won’t be able to convince you otherwise, but I truly believe there’s an important distinction to be made here and that older professionals need to be aware of these two subtly different situations they may encounter.

At any rate, these small nuances aside, I do my best to continue recommending ways that older job hunters today can try to sidestep or neutralize whatever overt discrimination may exist out there.  Along those lines, in the recent event I mentioned above, we focused on the idea that many older candidates don’t concentrate as much as they could on how to actually sell their age and experience as a valuable asset — instead of getting defensive about the issue or trying to hide their experience as if it were a shameful liability.  By way of example, when somebody complains about age discrimination, I’ll often ask them point-blank “why are your 20 years of experience any more valuable to me, as an employer, than somebody who has only worked for a few years in the field?”

I’ll be honest.  I don’t usually get a very good answer back.

So here’s what we came up in terms of some of the advantages, benefits, and “added value” elements that an older candidate might be able to showcase:

• Greater adaptability, having experienced more work cultures/bosses/environments
• More political prowess; better at “playing the game” and navigating interpersonal issues
• Deeper self-knowledge and self-awareness; clearer about their strengths and weaknesses
• Higher success rate, having experienced more failures, mistakes, and lessons learned
• Stronger work ethic and corporate loyalty, based on generational norms/expectations
• Longer, more consistent track record; not just a “one-hit wonder” or someone who got lucky
• More loyalty and stability; less likely to be seeking to climb the ladder or jump ship
• Possibly more mobile or willing to travel, due to children being grown and out of the house
• Able to work more smartly and be more efficient based on deeper pool of experience
• Likely to have larger network of relevant, valuable personal and professional relationships
• Mentoring skills; able to groom next generation and aid with succession planning efforts
• Emotional maturity; calmer under pressure and less likely to panic when things go south
• Able to connect well with older audiences/customers if a company targets that demographic

Hope some of these ideas are useful to you, if you’re worried about this issue, and please feel free to chime in with a comment if you think of any items I missed!

Stay tuned, too, and in the coming days, I’ll be writing another post focused on “playing defense” and some of the additional steps that an older worker can take to decrease any age-related perceptions that may be working against them in the hiring process…