Attitudes toward age: the not-so-hidden bias
The faded photo of my grandmother was taken in the early 1930s. It shows a short, plump woman wearing a summer dress, her grey hair in a bun, a small straw hat atop her head, wireframe glasses on her nose. She looks like a nana, even though she was only in her early 50s.
That image of what an older person looks like still sticks with us today and is the reason people are shocked when I tell them I’m 75. “I thought you were in your 50s,” they say. Ok, some say 60s, but I still smile smugly as I do my squats and lunges at the gym.
Times have changed. Unfortunately, the business world hasn’t kept up. For many older workers, the high cost of living has pushed them back to work, while others, like me, want to return to work because they enjoy the engagement and camaraderie it provides.
A study of 5,000 workers and managers in seven countries by the nonprofit Generation found that people who are 45 or older make up a large share of the long-term unemployed. Hiring managers tend to view older job applicants negatively. One key insight from the survey is positive, however. Those same hiring managers also acknowledge that those workers perform on the job just as well as, or even better than, their peers who are a decade younger.
When asked if I’m retired, I respond that I don’t understand that word. Don’t get me wrong. Like most people who spend several decades building a career, I looked forward to leaving the workday life behind.
I didn’t have the type of career that ends with the gift of a watch and a cake surrounded by clapping co-workers. I held serial jobs over the course of more than 45 years, each offering more income and more responsibilities. Nevertheless, I began to think about the next chapters. Plural.
Turns out, the next chapter was joining the Peace Corps as a “response volunteer” assigned to provide marketing services for the 2018 MicroGames and the Yap Visitors Bureau. The young man who coordinated the volunteers in Yap told me that he couldn’t believe someone who was 69 would be able to do the work required.
Ageism rears its ugly head.
He soon saw that my age was not a factor. My skills, knowledge and background were what counted.
When that gig ended, I remained in Yap and became a freelance writer, a skill I honed throughout my career and now use to write articles for the Pacific Island Times and other regional and international media. It doesn’t pay much, but that isn’t my goal. My goal is to stay engaged in work where talent, not age, matters.
After five years in Yap, I moved to Guam in mid-2021 and began to check the job listings on Indeed.
Although my birth and college graduation dates are absent on my resume, my listed job history extends back 30 years, when I held the title of senior vice president, and leads up to my final job as chief operating officer at the public relations agency for one of the largest brands in the world.
It’s easy to deduce from my resume that I’m not mid-career seeking a new opportunity, nor did I grow full-blown from the head of Zeus as a senior vice president.
One job was a natural fit – marketing director for a bank. I had several clients in the financial services industry over the years, so I revised and uploaded my resume focusing on that experience, added a cover letter, and hit “send.”
Crickets. The job is still on Indeed.
When I turned 40, it was not unusual for women to feel they’d hit a wall due to age bias. But times were a’changin’ and I found that I had many more years left. Now that I’m a septuagenarian, I’ve hit the same wall again.
A friend who’s my age went for an interview recently at a medical clinic here in Guam. Highly qualified for the job after years of nursing experience, she was met by two young staff members. Showing her to an office, they went down a list of prepared questions including, “Where would you like to be in five years?” She replied, “On a beach in southern France.” The questions were bound to eliminate her from the clinic’s search.
I always laugh when asked in an interview if I know how to use a computer. I reply, “Have you heard of a Wang word processor?” They haven’t, they say with a puzzled look. “A Wang was my first office computer 40 years ago,” I say. “I’m proficient in most software and use social media and other digital tools daily.”
Do they ask a 35-year-old applicant if they know how to use a computer? Highly doubtful.
Statisticians who compile unemployment data often assume that retirees have no interest in working. Combined with stereotypes of people over the age of 50 that we look like my grandmother in that photo, are physically and mentally infirm, require salaries equal to what we once made, and will be a burden on a company’s health insurance, employers are leaving out a significant portion of experienced, capable workers who, research shows, are more likely to show up for work on time and less likely to call in sick.
We also offer years of experience that equate to better, faster problem-solving. And those of us over 65 probably have Medicare.
It would be in the best interest of companies to acknowledge and eliminate age bias when hiring and select the most qualified candidate for the job. Assess your hiring practices, train the staff who conduct the interviews, and adjust the questions you ask.
Granted, at my age I won’t be with your company for the next 20 years, but at a time when millennials jump from job to job faster than a flea from a hot skillet, I will probably stay much longer.
After a long career as a senior marketing executive, Joyce McClure traded the island of Manhattan for the island Yap as a Peace Corps response volunteer in 2016. She is now a freelance writer and photographer living in Guam. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org