Combat age discrimination with updated skill and tact


A 59-year-old teacher writes that he suddenly lost his job after 35 years of stellar performance. A secretary in her 60s is convinced her much younger boss is making her life miserable so she'll quit. And a 40-something lawyer, now job hunting, complains that interviewers ask whether she can take "direction."

All three think they are victims of age discrimination -- and maybe they are. There's a lot of it going around these days, although it gets much less attention than other forms of prejudice. "Ageism" tends to creep up after your 40th birthday, and can hang around for two or three more decades of your working life. It can prevent you from getting a position that you want, lead to on-the-job harassment, or force you into early retirement.

While the law prohibits age discrimination on the job, going to court can be extremely costly, time-consuming and disruptive of your career. Better to find other ways to stop ageism before it stops you.

The first step is understanding some of the negative stereotypes: that once people hit middle age they slow down and get set in their ways. Employers will rarely say so outright. More likely, they'll just pass you over for a promotion, give you impossible goals to meet, or relegate you to grunt work -- if you're still on the job.

Prospective employers may screen out your resume, comment that you seem overqualified, or tell you their pay scale is way below what you've been earning. If you're looking for a job,

anticipate the cards that employers may play, and have your countermoves ready.

"Yes, I've supervised staff, but I've also reported to a lot of people higher than me on the corporate ladder," you could say to the interviewer concerned about your willingness to follow instructions. "I'm sure my supervisors will be qualified, and I'm mature enough to take orders from people of any age."

Prepare for interviews by listing the three or four strongest qualities that you would bring to the position and how you've used these skills in past jobs. Memorize them. Then weave them into the conversation during interviews. It's critical to show how your experience and time in the business make you better than the next person who might be younger -- and cheaper -- to hire.

When discussing salary, point out that even though you are being hired for a particular ability, you have other talents that the company can use, making you worth more money than the employer might ordinarily pay. Another option is to negotiate for benefits such as education instead of additional wages. Your willingness to keep learning helps dispel the myth that experienced workers can't adapt to change.

This last strategy works well, too, for people who are still on the job. Become more proficient with computers, learn a new skill or bone up on developments in your field. Sometimes companies offer in-house training (but don't neglect your job duties if you sign up for it). Otherwise, you can take courses at a local school or attend trade conferences. Circulate copies of articles that may interest your boss and co-workers.

Meanwhile, get to know your youthful colleagues. Not everyone's waiting for you to retire and make room for the next generation. You'll know your strategy has worked when younger workers seek out your perspective. Down the road, they could offer information and tips to help you move ahead.

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