Age old dilemmas

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By Gill Sharp


What are the most common worries that arise whenever people are thinking about switching careers, applying for a new job or going for promotion? The interview itself is obviously high on the list, as are degrees of wariness around the challenges of moving beyond their current comfort zone. But a third (and often unspoken) fear for many candidates is that their age will count against them. How real is this perception?

To put the topic into context, last October the Age Discrimination Act came into force. This made it as unlawful to discriminate against people on the grounds of age as on the grounds of race or gender. In terms of recruitment, this meant, for instance, that job advertisements could no longer specify a particular age range either overtly or covertly. Even adjectives such as "dynamic" were held to be dubious - dynamism, one supposes, being seen as the sole province of the young. (Needless to say, those who are long in the tooth might consider that this is, in itself, an ageist assumption.) Questions around age, however oblique, at the point of application or during interview are also contentious, although quite when a discussion of "experience" crosses this boundary is yet to be fully defined.

Several months down the line, how is the act shaping up? First of all, it must be said that, even before the legislation went live, many employers across all sectors were taking it very seriously indeed and changing their recruitment and selection processes in line with good practice. As a result, numerous organisations had already hit the ground running before the starter's gun was fired. In addition, "diversity" is a current hot topic and new human resources posts are being created to ensure a workforce that is not only varied in character and composition, but whose individual members understand and appreciate the need for diversity amongst their colleagues. Age certainly falls within this remit.

Not everything in the garden is rosy however: anomalies do still exist. Many application forms still ask for age on the main document rather than in the monitoring section. I've recently been coaching a candidate for senior HR roles who challenged this practice with a leading public sector employer - one that should really have known better. Not only did they take her comments on board, she was given the job! Moral: it's always worth querying any aspects of recruitment and selection that you think may not comply with the letter, or even the spirit, of the act. It's new, it's unknown territory and many well intentioned employers are still feeling their way around it. Your feedback can only help not hinder them - and yourself.

Of course, we live in the real world and if people are minded to discriminate then they will - although they may no longer find it so easy to escape the consequences. So, whether you were born in the middle of the 20th century or as it drew to a close, what can you do to help yourself in the job seeking stakes? Firstly, if you are revamping your CV and are minded to include your age - don't. It never was mandatory and it certainly isn't necessary now. Yes, recruiters will be able to estimate the hideous truth from your work history and the dates of your education, but the busy head-hunter or HR person is likely to have more important things on their mind. But if they do take the trouble to do this, there is a huge difference between discerning this alongside other, weightier information and you handing it to them on a plate at the top of your CV. To a recruiter in their twenties your date of birth might represent the dawn of pre history - a sobering thought. And it works in reverse: age discrimination can affect candidates who are viewed as irredeemably youthful too. But generally speaking, if you don't define yourself by your age, neither will others.

At interview, it must be said that some candidates get themselves into deep water by being over defensive about their status, whether it be too senior or overly junior, and by approaching the issue in an unstructured way. Dare I mention the word "waffle"? It's sometimes a case of the lady -or gentleman- doth protest too much. They make (far too) much of their maturity and experience without backing this up in any tangible way. Actions - or concrete examples of same - speak louder than words. Key point: give demonstrable proof of your maturity and experience rather than just talking about it.

But what do you do if none of the above seems to be working? One young graduate found himself being turned down for high flying positions for which he was more than well equipped and suspected that his chronological age was against him. The fact that he looked so youthful that he was constantly refused service in pubs didn't help his cause one jot. So he took the proverbial bull by its metaphorical horns and at the end of one interview addressed the problem himself by asking them to judge him on his achievements not his looks. They hired him. (Note: this can work for the baby boomers and their predecessors too!)

For all job seekers, from 16 plus to 60 plus, who are vexed that their date of birth may prove an obstacle, the law and employment protocols are on your side. But don't just rely on this: self belief and strategic thinking will get you a long way. By imagining yourself at a disadvantage, it can almost be a case of "and wishing makes it so". Remember that supposed barriers to your progress can be self erected rather than imposed from without.

Are you still unconvinced? As I like to have the last word, I will cite two very recent (i.e. post legislation) examples of the triumph of age. Both Huw and Patricia have recently been made redundant from different universities, he as a lecturer, and she as support staff. Both were over 50 and one had turned 60. Each of them now has another job at senior level and one has successfully made the transition from academia to industry. Success by any standards - and it was their experience that was pivotal, not the year that they were born.

So take a leaf out of their book: whether you are a spring chicken or a rather older bird, the future can be yours.

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