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Ever hear “overqualified” or similar words when being declined for a job? It sounds complimentary at first, but soon becomes apparent it must be code for something else that lost you the opportunity.

In the growing trend toward ageism, overqualified is the lingo used by recruiters to soften the blow to people over 40, 50 and beyond who are being declined for work for no other reason than their age. When your feedback is only rave reviews and everybody loved you but “we feel you won’t be satisfied with this position” is how you’re let down, you can almost always assume your maturity and salary requirements did you in.

HR/People teams and recruiters have more recently caught on to the legal implications of using the word “overqualified” and are now trying to avoid discrimination accusations by finding synonyms that seem less offensive. They’ll use phrases like “it’s a leveling thing,” “you’re too creative,” and “the role would not be engaging for you.” I’ve personally heard all of these.

I moved to Denver, Colorado from Silicon Valley looking for a lifestyle change. My miscalculation was in assuming that the years of growth mindset, flexibility in the face of ambiguity, management of insane workloads and hours in high stress industries, multiple promotions, and a wide range of skills and experience both professional and with people would back me up in my search for a new job opportunity. I had no idea that all of that would at some point become second in importance only to my age.

I’ve gone through lengthy, intensive interview processes for several jobs now. All of the hiring managers were younger than me, and I had no issue with this. I was a top candidate, with great ideas and confidence, only to be told something equivalent to being “overqualified” or even something more ambiguous like, “we have no negative feedback for you, it was all good.” These experiences have left me wondering whether I made the right choice in leaving my last position in hopes of finding something new, challenging and in-line with my current goals. 

It appears making a career change for people of “advancing years” is riskier because there may be few to no moves left to make. The only option seems to be pivoting to something entirely different, and possibly less lucrative. Sometimes this can be a good thing if you’re ready for it, but many of us are still ambitious, lifetime learners who want to grow and make an impact at a company and now have to rethink our trajectory. Age shouldn’t matter any more than someone’s ethnicity, sexual orientation or religion, but increasingly it does.

AARP noted in an article from 2019 that 35% of the U.S. population is 50 years or older. 1 in 4 workers age 45 and older have been subjected to negative comments about their age. 3 in 5 older workers have experienced age discrimination in the workplace, and 76% of these workers see age discrimination as a hurdle to find a new job. Additionally, AARP found in another report that more than half of these older workers are prematurely pushed out of longtime jobs and 90% of them never earn as much again.

Age discrimination is real, equally unfair and crosses all boundaries and effects people who are vital and valuable. It seems to be the last “ism” to be addressed by employers. The networking groups I belong to are made up mostly of people in this situation and believe me, they are talking about it.  A report from CBS Denver says that in Colorado, with the third fastest-growing population of older people in the country, ageism is one of the most common forms of discrimination in the workplace.

It’s possible its being ignored because it’s so difficult to prove. Even with some of the legislation that’s been passed like the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (POWADA) in 2020, it’s still pervasive and going unchecked. There have been some lawsuits over the years but that’s not what people ultimately want. They want a meaningful job, where their skills are respected, and they can make a living commensurate with their experience. 

Respondents in a survey done by Senior Living in 2020 showed there are two discriminatory actions that occur at about the same rate – being passed up for job opportunities (45%) and being overlooked for raises and promotions (43%). This article states that in just two years, one in four U.S. workers will be 55 or older. That’s 25% of the workforce (for those who are able to find work). Isn’t that a percentage of the population worth listening to? Where do the industry leaders who are touting equality and fair employment for all stand on this issue? How can these biases be overcome?

An article on Indeed, a well-known job board, says there are many great reasons for retaining and hiring older workers, not the least of which is their strong set of skills, experience and loyalty. Indeed, also mentions that ageism is driven by inaccurate stereotypes, but that age is an important factor in building a diverse team of people with differing perspectives.

There are great resources for information about dispelling age bias in the workplace. One article on The Riveter, a site built to increase awareness and “equity of opportunity” for all, gives a list of suggestions for helping companies, employees, and recruiters including evaluating the language being used in job descriptions, having open conversations about ageism, and crafting an age-inclusive brand.

Having more knowledge and experience shouldn’t be considered a threat to younger managers or a detriment to any company. All differences should be celebrated and invited to the table. This is the only way we can truly say all voices are being heard and respected. 

Older workers are not overqualified, they are usually just fully qualified. The young bring fresh eyes and exuberance and workers over 40 bring stability and wisdom. Both are necessary and improve the overall success of a business. 

Indeed, is hosting a webinar called “Age Discrimination in Hiring: Job Search Advice for Mature Workers” on April 6. They’ll be covering steps you can take to overcome ageism in the workforce.

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