I know an older job seeker who feels perpetually discriminated against. He’s projected the same attitude as long as I’ve known him. He believes that employers see him as inflexible, unwilling to learn new skills, set in his ways. Honestly, I think he works hard to live up to these attitudes. He wears these attitudes on his sleeve, as they say — along with the bitterness he feels about being “discriminated against.” But I’ve never known him to do anything constructive to alter these perceptions.
I have another colleague, a woman who is almost 15 years senior to my friend. Every time I interact with this woman, I am left in awe of the tremendous depth of knowledge and experience she embodies. She is also amazingly hip to new technologies, trends, and attitudes. She works hard to stay one step ahead, and she’s not bitter about anything, not even some significant health problems.
These two older workers, one unemployed and one employed, embody prevalent stereotypes. We’ve all met them many times before, in one form or another. The stereotypes are so common, it’s easy to quickly pigeonhole older workers into one or the other. If you are an older candidate, this is a challenge you face. The good news is that it’s largely up to you to control which way you are likely to be seen.
I am not making light of the challenges older workers face, suggesting that there is no such thing as age discrimination, or implying that the solutions are instant and easy. But I do want to highlight two specific things about these older workers, and why I believe they are perceived so differently.
First, each of these people is seen very much the way that they see themselves. Granted, this isn’t always the case — we all know people whose self-image is skewed (often quite generously). But it is universally true that our attitudes tend to inform the way we present ourselves and the way we are seen.
Second, perhaps as an extension of the way they see themselves, both of these older workers act accordingly. The older of the two reads voraciously, she takes and teaches classes at the local community college, and she makes a point of keeping herself on the forefront of her field. In contrast, the embittered gentleman (although he’s unemployed) often grumbles about how he “doesn’t have time to keep up with every stupid new fad.”
A recent study confirmed a common link between creativity and age. Add to that the variety and magnitude of experience older workers often bring to the table, as well as other life experiences, vast personal and professional networks, maturity and wisdom — what a powerful package. But these qualities and gifts aren’t inevitable consequences of age. They are the results of choices we all make, throughout our lives and our careers.