Age bias is an unfortunate, prevalent obstacle to older IT professionals. But it can be overcome if you identify it early during the job interview process and know the best way to respond to age-related questions.
The IT industry can be a cruel career sector. According to an industry survey just a few years ago, tech professionals are viewed as old and seniors (in terms of age) when they hit their early to mid-40s. And that isn’t the worst of it—while older professionals in most industries are valued for having more experience and expertise, it’s the opposite within the tech community.
"There's a belief in Silicon Valley that what isn't new isn't useful, and that goes for people as well as technology," said Bill Payson, the 76-year-old president of Senior Staff Inc., a recruiting firm that specializes in older workers.
And don’t think the mindset is only in dot-com land, Payson added. The age issue is prevalent throughout the industry, he said, and many companies have rationalized an age-biased viewpoint in several ways: older workers' salary demands are too high; older workers are not a good cultural fit within the young team; and they’re overqualified.
But there is hope, and some ways that older IT professionals can keep their careers going despite the continuing age-bias issue. The key is providing the right feedback and dismissing concerns about age right off the bat. Most times, a subtle age bias will appear in questions and comments from interviewers. The trick is identifying the questions and knowing the best way to answer them. Here are nine practice questions and suggested replies.
1. Tell me about yourself
Focus on your experiences and goals that relate to the specific job for which you're applying. Many experienced workers make the mistake of talking too much about their experience, especially the irrelevant parts. There’s no need to recap your entire resume. Keep it to five minutes or less and leave some space for the interviewer to ask follow-up questions.
2. How would you describe yourself?
The employer may be concerned about your fitting in with younger workers, taking direction from a younger supervisor, and coping with a hectic schedule. Research studies by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) have found that many employers think older workers lack flexibility and adaptability, are reluctant to accept new technology, and have difficulty learning new skills.
Demonstrate a high energy level throughout the interview. Highlight examples of your willingness to learn and take on new projects, your latest technology skills, and your ability to remain flexible and/or handle stress.
3. How old are you?
Although this is not an illegal question, it is a stupid question for an interviewer to ask. If you're 40 or older, you're protected by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). If the interviewer asks this question and does not hire you, he or she needs to be able to prove that you weren't selected because you lacked the qualifications and not because of your age. This question could also be a way to try to get an applicant to volunteer other personal information, such as family status or the desire to get pregnant, which are illegal questions. If you really want this position and feel that the interviewer has no discriminatory intentions, do not react negatively. Stress your skills and abilities to get the job done.
4. You seem overqualified. Why do you want this job?
This is the question that often cloaks subtle age discrimination. The employer may be questioning your goals or challenging your long-term commitment to the job. Also, a younger hiring manager might be intimidated by your experience or be uncomfortable supervising someone older. This question may give the interviewer the opportunity to ask about your salary, which leads to the cost excuse needed, or to say that you’d be “bored in this position.”
Indicate your sincere interest in working for the organization. Emphasize your unique attitudes, abilities, and interests that led you to apply for the job. Express your enthusiasm for the job and for the opportunity to learn. De-emphasize your many years of experience, but do stress the skills that relate to this particular job.
5. Will you be comfortable working for someone younger?
Some employers may be concerned that midlife and older workers will be reluctant to accept younger people as managers and bosses. Age should not be a determining factor in leadership; both younger and older people are capable of leading and managing.
One response that can be very effective for dispelling this concern is, “I’ve had other managers who were younger than I am, and just like the older ones, some are better than others,” or "I’ve learned something from every manager I’ve had."
6. You haven't worked for a long time. Are you sure you can handle this job?
Give a quick all-purpose reason and then focus on what you’ve been doing in your downtime—upgrading skills, learning about new industries, etc.
7. How is your health?
If you have an obvious physical disability that might affect your ability to do the particular job, you may wish to indicate how you manage the disability for top job performance. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), this question is illegal during the pre-offer stage. What the employer has a right to know at this stage is whether the applicant can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation. Due to the ADA, most employers are legally bound not to discriminate against persons with disabilities. Persons that can be accommodated in the workplace have strong protections against employment discrimination.
Once a company hires you, it may not ask for specific medical information unless it affects your job performance. You need to know the HR policies regarding medical leave and what information needs to be communicated.
8. We don't have many employees who are your age. Would that bother you?
Although federal law bars employers from considering a candidate's age in making any employment decision, it's possible that you'll be asked age-related questions in an interview, perhaps out of the interviewer's ignorance or perhaps to test your response.
Explain that you believe your age would be an asset to the organization. Emphasize that you're still eager to learn and improve, and it doesn't matter who helps you. The age of the people you work with is irrelevant. Be sure that you know your rights under the ADEA.
9. What are your salary requirements?
Try to postpone responding to this question until a job offer has been made. If asked, provide a salary range that you've found during your job market investigation. You can obtain salary ranges by talking to people who work in the same field, reviewing industry journals and Internet sites, and analyzing comparable jobs. Based on your research, you can provide a salary range in line with the current market.
If you don't have the range and the interviewer asks this question, ask the interviewer, "What salary range are you working with?" Chances are 50/50 that the interviewer will tell you. If the interviewer continues to press for an answer, say something like, "Although I'm not sure what this particular job is worth, people who do this sort of job generally make between $___ and $___."
The issue of age discrimination in the tech industry isn’t new, and it’s certainly not dissipating any time soon. In a June 2001 report, "The Digital Work Force: Building Infotech Skills at the Speed of Innovation," the U.S. Department of Commerce found "numerous anecdotes of middle-age technical workers having difficulty finding IT jobs." Noting that nearly 80 percent of computer programmers were under the age of 45, the DOC report speculated on several potential reasons for the industry's tilt toward young workers: The industry's notoriously long (and family unfriendly) hours, the perception that older workers may not be familiar with current technologies, and employers' fears that more experienced workers will be more expensive than younger ones were all cited as factors.
While the DOC and other federal agencies urge employers to look beyond myths and ages, pointing out that "many mid-career workers have a breadth of experience that could benefit many young IT companies,” a lot more can still be done on the regulatory and enforcement end.
In the meantime, older, skilled, experienced workers will continue to struggle to find full-time employment. But by learning to identify potential age bias, and knowing how best to respond to related questions, you can make a strong attempt to get past the age-issue hurdle.