For years, older workers have been the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. workforce, with AARP reporting in 2019 that workers over the age of 55 filled nearly half of new jobs. While ageism in interviews and hiring have always been an issue, the market for job seekers over 55 was robust. Then the pandemic hit.
Today, job seekers aged 55 and older are experiencing the highest levels of long-term unemployment, with joblessness impacting older women most of all. As we begin to heal from the pandemic, with the job market similarly showing signs of healing, more and more of these workers will attempt to reenter the workforce. And ageism in the job search is, unfortunately, an obstacle many expect to encounter. Research from Fairygodboss shows that, for individuals who’ve experienced ageism, 43% believe they were passed over for a job for age-related reasons.
Ageism isn’t always obvious, though. From job descriptions that dissuade older applicants by asking for “digital natives” with “five to seven years of experience” to interview questions that cast doubt on a candidate’s tech savvy, it can take more subtle forms. If you’re interviewing for a role with a new company, there are a few red flags to watch out for that your age is being discreetly discriminated against. We heard from experts about what to look for, and what to do about it.
The 7 Subtle Signs of Ageism in Interviews
Certain company culture elements are emphasized.
All employers want to make hires who fit the organization’s culture and values. But there’s a line where this can become ageist, according to Paul French, Managing Director at Intrinsic Search.
“‘Culture fit’ can also be a euphemism for ‘someone who is like us,’” French said. “When an interviewer overemphasizes that they are looking for a ‘culture fit’ and especially if the company’s dominant demographic is younger people, they might view you unfavorably and make it look like you might not be a fit for the role due to your age.”
And if a “we’re all friends here” culture is heavily hinted at, that can be thinly veiled ageism, too.
“If the interviewer starts to dwell on aspects of organizational culture such as the ability to spend time outside of work with coworkers, particularly if it involves going out after work, and will not let up, it is likely they are alluding to your willingness and desire to engage in those sorts of things as an older employee,” Rolf Bax, Chief Human Resources Officer at Resume.io, said.
Your qualifications are doubted.
Ageism doesn’t just impact older workers. Younger workers find themselves on the receiving end of reverse ageism, too, especially when their experience is doubted. That was the case for Nadia Chariff, an executive health advisor at Coffeeble, in a former job search.
“I was called colloquial terms like ‘honey’ and ‘sweetie,’” she recalls. “I was told that surely I wasn’t old enough to have the degrees and experience I possessed. My very words in response to questions were doubted and devil’s advocacy was rampant. In general, I just felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously.”
The interview feels overly stiff and formal.
If it feels like your interviewers — particularly if they’re considerably younger than you — are artificially buttoned-up throughout the interview, it may be an ageist reaction.
“(There’s) a heightened sense of formality in the exchange, to the point that it makes the interview questions seem trivial or irrelevant,” Joe Flanagan, Senior Employment Advisor at VelvetJobs, said.
You’re asked when you graduated college.
A hiring manager who asks when you graduated may be indirectly trying to calculate your age, since asking for it explicitly is illegal in many states, explained Branka Vuleta, founder of LegalJobs.io.
“You can avoid answering this question by focusing and switching the conversation to your education,” Vuleta said. “You can say something along the lines of, ‘As you can see in my resume, my masters degree in economics allowed me to enter a foreign exchange program and pursue my other degree abroad. Would you be interested to hear about that?’”
Rather than asking questions, they reference assumptions.
To find out whether the role suits your needs, including from a salary and benefits standpoint, the interviewer should be approaching you from a place of open-ended inquiry only.
“When an interviewer starts assuming things about positions you might take on certain aspects of office life or work-life balance, and they make it seem as though you might be difficult to work with, the subtext is often that you are too old to be a good fit,” Trevor Larson, CEO of Nectar, said. “It might be an assumption about accepting less money or having to defer to a younger coworker and team member in a position of authority. The bottom line is that these sorts of assumptions imply that your age is a potential problem.”
You’re asked about your tech familiarity.
While some roles may genuinely require an interview question (or a few) about comfort with technical platforms, an ageist interview may heavily center these. And knowing how to answer them can be tricky, Alex Magnin, founder of a consumer technology and digital media company, said.
“Every technology question you face will be an uphill battle, be it ‘Are you familiar with X technology?’ or ‘How have you kept your technology skills up to date?’” Magnin said. “They’re all traps, and there’s only one way out: confidence. Don’t fake it til you make it in this situation. Confidence in your abilities combined with honesty is the best way forward.”
You aren’t asked about your future career goals.
Given how often “where do you see yourself in five years?” is asked, its absence can speak volumes, too, according to Ouriel Lemmel, CEO and Founder at WinIt.
“An interviewer failing to ask about future career goals could be a sign of ageism,” he said. “Interviewers commonly ask applicants where they see themselves down the road and what their future plans are. If your interviewer leaves this part of an interview out completely, it could be a sign that they are making assumptions about how long you will stay with the company.”
What to Do About Ageism in Interviews
If you find yourself on the receiving end of ageism in interviews, there are a few ways forward.
Pivot the conversation.
If you’re asked a question that feels too connected to ageist assumptions, you can try to steer the conversation back to a realm you have more control in, suggested Mary Sullivan, a career transformation specialist.
“There are ways to pivot the conversation to the points you want to emphasize,” she said. “If asked when did you graduate, you can discuss your degree and how you have applied it and added new skills throughout your career. When asked about technology, do not make the parent jokes. Truly share how you apply and leverage technology in your roles.”
Reference how well you’ve worked within multi-generational teams.
Sometimes, an interviewer doesn’t necessarily mean badly by fearing you won’t enjoy reporting to someone a couple decades your junior. Try to get ahead of this by clearly communicating how well you’ve worked with younger colleagues in the past.
“Show how you have collaborated with coworkers of all ages in the past,” Lemmel said. “While your ability to do the work is the most important aspect of the interview, it’s also important to show that you can work well with and get along with younger employees. An ageist interviewer may jump to conclusions about your ability to collaborate. Prove them wrong.”
Consider pursuing legal options.
If the ageism in interviews feels substantial, you may want to consider taking legal action, Bax said.
“The best thing an older interviewee can do to counteract any age-based prejudices is to fall back on their experience and reiterate their commitment to learning and fitting into organizational culture regardless of any age gaps,” he said. “If the ageism is much more explicit, you may have a legal case to make. In the U.S., for instance, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects certain applicants over the age of 40 from a wide range of hiring and other employment discrimination.” Ageism in interviews may not go away, but you can stand up to it and make a difference.
On the job hunt? Read more of our interviewing advice here.