TORONTO, Ontario / The Globe & Mail / Careers / Managing / April 14, 2011
The age-old old-age question
By Wallace Immen
There’s an unspoken elephant in the room whenever Fred Peters is interviewed for a job.
Even though it is illegal for potential employers to ask his age, he knows it is on their minds. “I’ve found you have to deal with the age factor up front,” says Mr. Peters, who is 63 and until 2008 was chief financial officer of the now-defunct software maker Digital Fairway Corp. in Toronto.
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“I get questions about whether, at this stage in my career, I am looking to take things easier,” he says. “And they ask lifestyle questions about my priorities: They ask how much I like to play golf and how much time I spend with my grandchildren. And they will ask things like: ‘We’ve got lots of young people here, how are you going to relate to them?’”
He’s come to expect the questions and comes equipped with answers that focus on the value of his years of experience. Having done contract work for the past 20 months, he’s now talking to a couple of potential employers and hopes that it will lead to a part-time position as a CFO. “I’ve found it’s important to be open and bring a lot of evidence of my skills and the fact that I expect to take an active role,” he says.
It’s an approach mature candidates should be taking but all too often don’t, career experts say. And because of that, they undermine their own job searches. Here’s their advice:
“It is a reality that age is a factor, but it is not the primary factor behind whether you’re hired or not,” said Alan Kearns, head coach for career and leadership company CareerJoy in Toronto.
“For some people, ageism becomes an excuse for easing off their job search. Because of that, they carry that baggage that can take them into interviews with a self-imposed label on themselves: ‘I’m no longer a prime candidate,’” he said.
The reality is that you are going to have to work harder to get the kind of opportunities that you got 10 years ago. You are going to be competing against people who are where you were 10 years ago and are now looking to move up, Mr. Kearns said.
And at the same time, some employers may feel threatened by your experience or fear that you will take the job and be ready to leave if something better comes along. You need to ease those fears.
Keep on the edge
“The people who interview candidates for senior jobs tend to be in their 30s and 40s, and when they are interviewing people in their 50s, a question in the back of their minds is: ‘This person is older than I am; can he or she possibly be up to date?’” said Bernice Finley of executive search and career-transition coaching company Feldman Daxon Partners in Toronto, an affiliate of OI Partners Inc.
So staying up to date is crucial, not only with trends and certifications in your industry but with technology. Fortunately, “I find most senior executives are doing all they can to stay up to date, including using social media and keeping up with the tech tools that keep coming onto the scene,” she said.
Don’t assume a straight line
It’s a wise move for people over the 50 mark to take aptitude tests to make sure that their interests and aptitudes still meet the needs of the industry they are aiming for. This can easily be done by industrial psychologists, who use a standard package of tests to measure aptitude and motivation, said Warren Lundy of Feldman Daxon.
Even if you are up to date, there can be a lot of competition for the job you do and it might be wise to examine shifting to a niche in more demand. “People who have spent their whole life in line positions with big companies are particularly prone to thinking the only thing they are suited to is more of the same,” Mr. Lundy said. “But you’ve got to realize that, in a large organization, there may be hundreds of younger employees who are looking to move into vacant management roles.”
A better alternative might be to look at a smaller organization, especially one that is fast growing and has a predominantly young staff, that would value someone with experience in putting together projects and has skills that can help the company grow, he said.
Make maturity an advantage
In an interview, older candidates should pre-emptively manage the age issue by presenting it as a plus. “People don’t hire you because of your tenure, they hire you for what you can do for them. Translate your years into results,” Mr. Lundy said. “Present tangible evidence rather than philosophy. You’ve got a track record and have had a history of solid performance. You are not one to take on a commitment and not fulfill it.”
Employers are also likely to respond to the fact that you may be less distracted by family issues than people in mid-career might be.
Be willing to flex
“I’m finding there is a lot of demand for people in their 50s and 60s who are open to contract work,” Mr. Lundy said. Often, a contract role or consultant assignment can turn into full-time position, Mr. Lundy said.
“When you interview for these jobs, the best advice is to focus on the nitty-gritty of the unique value you can offer immediately. Don’t try to be all things to everybody. Once you are in the door, you can show your breadth.” Recently, he had a client who took a short consulting contract for a product launch, “and when they found out that he was a CA, the client started asking him to help develop the business plan, and it turned into a great full-time opportunity.”
You can’t hide your age but you should be doing what you can to not draw attention to it, Mr. Kearns said.
For instance, in your résumé you can focus on the past 20 years, rather than the whole 30 years, and not mention the year you graduated. “It’s not being dishonest, it’s being wise and focusing on the part of the story you want to highlight. Most employers are only hiring you for your experience in the past five to 15 years anyway,” he said.
As well, keeping in good physical shape is important to convey that you have the energy to do the job.
Ride the tide
Keep in mind that taking on new challenges later in your career is part of a trend, advises Susan Eng, spokesperson for CARP, the association for Canadians over 50. “It used to be that people were just expected to leave the workplace and fade into the sunset” and no one thought that people would prefer to keep working after a certain age.
Now, with the elimination of mandatory retirement rules, more people are expecting to work longer.
“A perceptive employer should recognize and see through the age barrier in their own minds and say I want competence and experience and the informal network that people build over a career, and that will give us a competitive advantage.”
Human resources consultant Barry Bruce explains how employers couch their ageist tendencies – and what to do about it
Barry Bruce, 55, Toronto
Career path: After more than 20 years as a human resources manager, most recently at Ontario Hydro, he decided to start his own human resources company, SOAR Consulting and Training Inc., in Toronto.
What he’s experienced: I’ve done recruiting on contracts for several companies and I know there is ageism at work, both consciously and systemically. I’ve had employers specify they only want candidates who are young and will bring energy to the job. By saying that, they are consciously saying they don’t want anyone who is over a certain age.
Companies will also post job descriptions that set limits such as: “We require someone who has between four and six years of relevant experience.” That means someone like me, who has 20 years of experience, would be viewed as hugely overqualified.
How he counters it: When I bring clients a list of candidates, I include people with a longer track record. I find that often employers find younger candidates don’t have the depth of experience they are looking for and they want to look at people further up the age chain.
His advice: Candidates over 50 should take stock. Do you really need a full-time job and all the stresses? You may be much more attractive as a contract employee.
Also, do an analysis of your financial requirements. If you have significant pension already in place, you don’t need to hold out for more than you were making at your previous job, which can limit your options if you do. At the same time, don’t undervalue yourself, which can raise questions about how serious you are about the job.
Despite the removal of mandatory retirement, there is still a view that individuals will only work to a certain age and that energy drops in later years. The best advice is to get in shape and go in conveying health, vitality and enthusiasm.
THE JOB SEEKER
Marketing man Dan Mallette counters ageism with enthusiasm
Dan Mallette, 53, Waterdown, Ont.
Career path: Former director of marketing at Black & Decker Canada Inc. Since 2009, he has been doing contract work and hopes to land a full-time position this spring.
What he’s experienced: I’ve had people ask me directly what my age is; I’ve had them look at my kids’ ages and add up that I must be in my early 50s. It’s all a matter of what the decision makers’ criteria are. If they’ve had a bad experience with someone older, it can be clear that they are biased.
How he handles it: I’ve felt that my age is an asset. There are a lot of companies looking for help in growing businesses and improving their performance now, and you can score points by emphasizing specific examples of successes in your track record. Many companies that have downsized also really want people with the responsibility and maturity to act quickly and with confidence, without having to consult more senior managers for approval.
His advice: Overcoming the age question still comes down to enthusiasm. You try to put all your positives forward; show that you have done your due diligence by researching and networking, and are speaking to their specific needs.
Age can trump youth point for point, in terms of your experience, knowledge, and the fact you are apt to make fewer mistakes. It may take longer to land the position you want than it might if you were younger, but patience is a virtue. If you don’t have patience and a plan, you are in serious trouble.
© Copyright 2011 The Globe and Mail Inc