Ageism in Job Interviewing: How to Face It Down

Ageism remains a pervasive issue in tech. It’s not unusual for job candidates over the age of 40 to tweak their applications and CVs to appear younger, and there are many reports of “salary ceilings” that technologists hit as they age. Companies deny any bias against older workers, and yet end up embroiled in age-discrimination lawsuits filed by hundreds of applicants.

For older technologists who want to stay in the tech industry, this situation is immensely frustrating. With age comes experience; with a multi-decade career, you know how to navigate challenges that would drive your younger colleagues to a nervous breakdown. But for some reason—especially in tech hubs such as Silicon Valley—getting older simply isn’t respected at some firms.

That makes applying for jobs a challenge—especially the interview portion. If you find yourself sitting across from a hiring manager or interviewer who’s decades younger than you, what do you do? What can you say? Here are some tips.

Don’t Focus on Your Years

Sitting across from an interviewer, knowing that you have to compete against candidates who are also very skilled, it’s tempting to lean hard into your personal history. After all, the extent of your experience is how you stand out. You might want to preface your answers to every question by stating how many years you’ve worked with a particular technology or on a certain set of problems. And it’s great that you have that background! In an ideal world (i.e., one without the threat of ageism harming your job chances), saying that you’ve been working with Python for 25 years should help, not hurt, your chances of landing the job.

Unfortunately, though, we don’t live in an ideal world. Don’t emphasize dates (“Well, ten years ago, we did it this way…” “Back in 1998, I thought…”); instead, focus on all the stuff you know as a result of your cumulative experience. Brag (within reason) about how up-to-date you are with the nuances of a particular technology. Tell stories that show off how your skills made a critical difference for the projects at your last job. It’s not about the years; it’s about the cool skills in your head. 

Show You’re Willing to Work with Younger Folks

Maybe you led a massive team in your previous position; and maybe, because of circumstances, you’re now applying for a job where you’re “just” a member of a team. Maybe your new boss was still a baby when you were building out a huge software platform that people still use today. 

Whatever the situation, it’s important to emphasize your flexibility. Sure, you’re more than happy to work on a team that reports into someone much younger than you. Absolutely, you’re willing to adapt to new ways of working. A big part of career management (and dealing with the perception of ageism) is adapting to change, even if it makes you feel a little unsettled.

Max Enthusiasm

You know the ageism cliché: older workers are tired, cranky, angry, and just want to take a nap. Like many clichés, this one is unfair and untrue—but a younger interviewer might buy into it nonetheless. However, by coming into the interview with high energy (and as much enthusiasm as possible) you can subvert those expectations. When answering questions, also emphasize how you’re a doerwho’s more than capable of multitasking.

Ageism: Know When to Walk Away

Age discrimination is illegal, but that doesn’t stop some interviewers from asking some truly inappropriate questions. If it’s clear that the interviewer can’t see past your age, things might not get better once you actually land the job. In extreme situations, trust your gut and (politely) excuse yourself from the process.  

32 Responses to “Ageism in Job Interviewing: How to Face It Down”

  1. Yes, age discrimination is happening all around us!! Nothing we can do bu sue. Make sure you record the interview.

    Yes, it’s true! Many of the “experienced” grandpappys can run circles around these young pups.

    I even know several Grampa’s and Grammas that can put together just about every aspect of a complete DevOps implementation. Some can out program these young whippersnappers too!

    But… companies don’t care until they get sued, and… they don’t care!

    Can’t stop age discrimination!!

    No. I won’t report to a real young person. That’s out. I will, however, act as an advisor/ / advocate to them. As long as they listen and hear what I have to say and follow my instructions!

    People are constantly breaking the law, but proving it is very difficult, unless it has been recorded. Even then, it might not be legal to use in court.

  2. playing devils advocate here… but “No. I won’t report to a real young person. That’s out. I will, however, act as an advisor/ / advocate to them. As long as they listen and hear what I have to say and follow my instructions!”

    so you’d refuse to work under someone that is younger than you and would work with them as an advisor? isn’t that …also agesim?

    • Ashton Applewhite

      Yes it it is. Any judgement about a person on the basis of how old we think they are is ageist. And there are things we can do, in addition to tracking age bias and suing if necessary, like join the emerging movement to make ageism as unacceptable as other forms of prejudice. Change is underway: IBM and Google just lost huge age discrimination lawsuits.

  3. Timothy C

    This article is ridiculous. It’s a sham.

    Ageism doesn’t wait for the job interview. Do you think people don’t discriminate until they see your gray hair? The discrimination starts when they see the year you got your degree, when they see how many jobs you’ve had, and especially your job titles.

    • I dealt with ageism 2 years ago, almost out of work 11 months. Now again dealing with it. Most jobs, even for exceptionally less pay, are almost impossible to get. Now I have even applied to jobs, which are illegally posted requiring Bilingual (Spanish), when it has nothing to do with the position. I clarify, I called and asked what the job details were, and instructions were produced in English, The phone calls were not foreign countries, only USA, and yet the job required Bilingual to communicate with the staff. Not as management, but an equal.

      Many things problematic now besides ageism.

    • Robert W.

      Got you to their website . . . Dice, as with any Ad-Driven platform, only care that you clicked the link in your email. They’re not here to help YOU, they’re here to fill their pockets with Advertising dollars.

      • Methuselah

        Well, at least they’re not a “job listing” enticing you to click and register all your contact info for a “Talent Network” where (just one more step!) your very own job-search concierge can look for a job for you for $599 a month. That’s the single most extreme example from my 5-month search, but it’s one that happened to me this week so it’s fresh in my mind.

    • Why on earth would you put the year you received your degree on your resume?

      I’ve had recruiters send me emails with a short questionaire at the bottom asking all sorts of invasive questions, including year of graduation. I generally ignore these emails but once in a while I’ll be in the mood to reply back to let them know I’m not interested — the vast majority of these are for positions that I categorize as “severe skills mismatch” — after filling in the graduation year field with “Are you serious?” I estimate that 99+% of these come from S. Asian recruiters.

  4. How old is the author of this article? He obviously has never experienced first hand ageism. His “recommendations” most likely come out of an HR guide book. The only way to battle against ageism is to find the companies who have a proven track record of hiring seasoned professionals. I wish these people at Dice would stop writing articles on topics they have actually no idea or experience on. I would be happy to write a real true life article on this subject if requested.

  5. Ron Rozzo

    I am definitely a victim of ageism however, let me take the other side for a moment. I don’t like being discriminated against due to my age but, I do understand the “business” side of that decision. If you own a company, wouldn’t you think it beneficial to hire a 40 year old that has 20 years experience and after you provide them even more training, can give you 25 years back as a loyal employee – Rather than a 55 or 60 or even older person that is more experienced but is ready to retire and you will lose them shortly and have to replace that position all over again? Plus, not to mention the retirement benefits side of this.So, I do understand the business decision, even though I don’t like it very much.

    • Here are some counter Business Side Points
      1. The experience and mentoring that an older worker can bring should be a valued asset that can benefit less experienced workers, even if for 5 years.
      2. People are working past 65
      3. It is unusual in this economy for anyone to work at one company for 20 years
      4. Retirement benefits are paid regardless of length of employment, whatever the age of the person

    • Most people in IT don’t seem to stay with a company for 5, 10, or, especially, 20 years any more. The younger hires certainly aren’t. I find that changing employers, frankly, a major pain in the butt, and never go into a job with the idea of bolting after only a couple of years. If a company tells you that they’re afraid you’ll skip out in a couple of years, they’re not treating you the same as they are the younger hires. That sounds like, oh, what’s the word, oh yes: *discrimination*.

  6. This article is spot on! I am in the same position as Kevin. I have been out of work for a year and yes I am suing my former employer. The process is long and HAS to go through the Federal EEOC which, by all accounts, takes their sweet time! I was discriminated against because of my age, I was harassed daily, retaliated against when I spoke up, and then was targeted to be fired, to which I was, after a 20 year career. In my exit interview, the Manager doing the review tried to “secretly” tell me I was actually targeted. Too bad for them I had the documentation to prove they had.

    Now, after dozens of interviews, I am applying for jobs that I should not have been, just to secure a decent income which I lost. The lawsuit make take a couple of years, but I still have bills to pay, and need to eat.

    And for the record, I have been on several interviews and I can say from first hand experience, I see it the Managers eyes that I am just a number to them, that I am way over qualified, and I am too old for their up and coming staff. They don’t say these are the problems, but my gut and their looks prove otherwise as I am still jobless.

    Who ever thinks that ageism isn’t real, trying being a fired professional with a degree over the age of 50 looking for a job to put food on your table!

  7. 1980 was almost 40 years ago. By some measure, that’s when the first Gen Y were born. Or as they’re better known by the popular name, Millennials, which sounds like people who have never left college.

    • I’ve been working in the IT industry since I left high school in ’03. Born in 1985. I was told not to bother going to college, and that accepted the mentality that a degree was not needed – especially during the Financial Collapse. It was at that point it was, “You’re lucky you have a job”. Especially in my crappy job market of Buffalo, NY. Now I am in my 30’s, and my job is slowly being automated, and I am helping in the process. I am now laid off facing the possibility of having to now get a degree at 34. So… We’re out here — Millennials that are getting screwed by the system just like the rest of you.

  8. I can totally relate to many of the comments here. I have been looking for a job for almost a year now and have had first hand experience (sadly) of age discrimination. Already four times I have gone through the phone interviews, aced them, prospective employer is absolutely thrilled with what I can bring to their table and then WHAM!!! The moment they find out how old I am (yes I am 63 years old) I never hear from them again. They don’t even have the decency to tell me that I am no longer being considered. The ironic part is one of them reached out to me because they had seen my resume on LinkedIn and liked what they saw. All I can say is…..one day they too will be “too old”…..what goes around comes around.

  9. Pete Feeney

    I can attest to the fact that Ageism is not only alive and well but almost ingrained genetically into the DNA of every business. Being in the Information Technology arena now usually means you have extra hurdles to cross. Recruiters for Contracting Firms like Robert Half whether recruiting for direct hire placements, contract to hire or just plain Contract positions are the filtering point for many businesses today. They are constantly scanning resumes to find qualified or close to qualified candidates for their clients. You can spend a good amount of time going through initial communications along with multiple phone interviews. Each time you can come away with a better feeling about your chances. You hear things like, you seem to be the perfect candidate you mark all the boxes for what the client is looking for until they want you to come in for a face to face interview. Now I have been hired on multiple occasions sight unseen and strictly based on my background along with them verifying with past employers. In one case going to work at a division of the Department of Justice.
    Now, I consider them wanting to either Skype or a Face to Face Interview is the proverbial kiss of death. I say this because up to this point I get every indication that I’m a strong candidate for the position. Once your Gray Haired Head has made it’s entrance and the Interview happens. You may even leave there thinking it was one of the best Interviews you’ve had in a long time. Unfortunately 99.9% of the time what used to be a meeting of the You Admiration Club turns into a Ghost town. You get no response from inquiries whether via Phone Calls or Email you simply no longer exist. It’s been over 2 years since my last I.T. gig which even though I try to remain positive in my outlook and continue to search for a position in the field. The dogging feeling and realization that it’s beginning to look more like the proverbial Snowballs chance in…………well you get the picture

  10. Jim Lagnese

    Instead of putting it all in the employees space to adapt, how about holding companies accountable for bad policies and behaviors? Usually law suits and cases that go to SCOTUS help more than anything an employee can do in the long run. People live longer now and have the potential for longer careers and longer years of productivity. The culture hasn’t caught up with that yet. Unless there is accountability on the employer end, it’s not going to change.

  11. I was let go 11 months ago from a startup that failed to deliver on their flagship product, and so started cutting technical staff. It was definitely not ageism. However, from then until now, I’ve had very little success in even securing interviews, and of course have not had any offers. I’ve applied to MANY positions that the job descriptions read like my resume! I have an MBA, CISSP, and other relevant certifications and experience, but still can’t get any traction. And I know other very talented people in the very same position. Consequently, several of them were “aged out” of IBM over the last 2 years after lengthy and successful careers there. I did finally get an onsite interview at Amazon, but when I arrived at their campus, I knew I was in trouble. At 52 years old, I was the oldest guy in sight! I finally saw a security that may have been older. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. I have no way of knowing whether it was my age or something else, but I can say that I’ve applied to other positions at Amazon since, and the applications are immediately denied. I’m sure my applications are now setting off alarms in HR. Something else to consider as well – many of us older types also have differing cultural and political views than the new tech titans, something they can very well discover with minimal research. And Amazon clearly states that 80% of their interview process is behavioral, 20% technical. You can read into that what you like.

    • Having been “laid off” at least 5 times (I’ve honestly lost count) since 2007, I can vouch for everything you say. In my experience, the “fadism” aspect is particularly pervasive, with project “managers” dumping development tools and changing directions every time they hear about something new or flashy.

      In my last position, I was “let go” and replaced by my 24-year-old assistant, whose only experience in the field (I am a technical writer) was the 6 months she spent as my apprentice. I have a master’s degree in a closely related field and almost 40 years of related experience, covering just about every aspect of my job. I also took the equivalent of nearly 40 semester hours of courses (at my own expense) to remain current in web technology. Until this year, I was able to find work and pay that were at least generally comparable to what I was making before. Now, though, at age 68 and relatively recently widowed, I am entering my 8th month of unemployment with only a couple of scams (including one contract client who has run off without paying me) to show for my hundreds of applications.

      When I started in a former job in 2014, I had planned to work until the end of this year (which would have qualified me for a minimal pension) and then retire. Now the chances of ever being able to do so are close to nil, and I can’t even get a temp job that pays much more than working at Target.

  12. There’s age and experience discrimination going on. I started out in one field and couldn’t get jobs after I had more than 10 years experience. I was forced, in my late 30s, to retrain for IT. I had a good job for 13 years and then, 3 months shy of my 55th birthday the company “downsized”. I was the only one downsized. It’s been over 6 years and I’ve had some jobs but nothing steady. Each time I’m told it’s my fault I didn’t get the job when it’s obvious that I have the experience and expertise. We can’t help growing older. Temp jobs are not good for anyone except employers attempting (quite successfully) to avoid being responsible employers. If this country wants to continue to have a successful consumer based economy employers have to start paying decent wages, hiring qualified people (not 25 year olds with 30 years experience), or face the facts and stop pretending that they care about anything but their bottom line.

    Read the want ads: all employers look for are purple squirrels. No one can meet their expectations. In my opinion Americans need to stop pretending that hard work and playing by the rules work. Lower the retirement age since employers insist upon not hiring anyone over the age 45. Stop tying medical coverage of any sort to employment. Stop expecting people to save for retirement, save for their children’s college education, unemployment, and surviving multiple crises at the same time.

  13. Fred San San Millan

    Age discrimination is now open and violated by most employers specially in the financial services industry. Guess who are the leading violators ?. Most government entities, including the feds. Yes you do not qualify if you are over 50, regardless of your skills.
    Another observed, and tolerated violation is the “English/Spanish” requirement used largely in
    California and South Florida as a new barrier to exclude not integrate, because very often that
    exigence is not justified.
    The Labor Department needs to wake up and enforce their rules, just like the aging population
    should start organizing and make some noise.

  14. Chris Fox

    Problem I have working with younger people is their enthusiasm for fads. I remember long ago some used ( this ) shit in code in an article; within two weeks half the industry was doing this.

    This was just stupid formatting; now we have pair programming and TDD, shockingly stupid practices, but, hey, the goofier the better

  15. James Mason

    During a recent interview I was asked how’s my health. I defused the question by talking about the demands of my last position and that I was normally to first to work and last to leave. I knew leaving the interview that I was not going to get the job.

    • Victor FrankDVDuring

      During a couple of the few phone interviews I got, the interviewer asked what year I graduated from high school. After I replied “1955” all I heard was “click” and return of the dial tone. Yes, ageism is rampant. One reason is that the costs of health insurance are pegged to the average age of the employees.

  16. Kathy Fors

    The judgement about age begins even before reading your resume. Many companies are now requiring a birthdate and social security number on the application. I thought that was illegal yet, there is no moving forward with the application unless these fields are filled in – they are a “hard stop”. Not wanting to be caught in a lie, I always put in the correct answers. There is no way to get around it, you’re dead in the water before you have gotten through the application.

  17. These Dice articles perennially engage in a game of “blame the victim”, advising somehow we are not behaving correctly, and we need to “adapt”. Just look at each of those headings: “Don’t Focus on Your Years”, “Show You’re Willing to Work with Younger Folks”, “Max Enthusiasm”. This article, while purporting to be an attempt to “help” us poor older employees avoid age discrimination plays right into the very stereotypes at the heart of the problem in the tech industry.

    Age discrimination is endemic. One manager I spoke with a few months ago explained his choice for a new headquarters location was driven purely by whether or not it would appeal to younger workers. He wanted to move it from the NW Chicago suburbs into the city itself because “market data shows that’s where the younger workers are”. I pointed out that most of his current employees were older and settled further out in the suburbs. He said that he was only going to make his decision “based on what the data and market research” indicated – an attempt to put a patina of “science” over his blatant attempt to discriminate against his older workers en masse. That’s just one example of many I have firsthand over the years, and I’m sure all of us have had. Oh, wait, my bad – I shouldn’t have said “years”…

    It’s of course not just age discrimination that’s practiced right out in the open. The tech industry seems to think it is completely immune to any government action; and rightly so, based on how the government has done zip to enforce it’s own laws. The vast swaths of workers classified as “contractors” who very clearly are employees, gender discrimination, racism, etc.

    The solution is right there in the last heading: “Know When to Walk Away”. I’ve started my own technology company, and you know what, it’s absolutely amazing how many well-qualified and talented workers there are out there for me to hire. I wonder where they all came from? I mean, the broader industry keeps complaining that it can’t find enough “qualified” people to fill it’s positions…

  18. Richard Spiegel

    In 2016, at age 59, I lost my job. It was the start of a nightmare. I’m highly qualified on a niche technical skill (BIOS/UEFI engineer). That was the start of an 11 month unemployment. Several interviews, including at least 6 face to face. Nothing. One time I left a company after an interview with technical people that would technically be co-workers if I got hired, with the following phrase: “I like you, you have good qualifications and willingness to learn a new skill. You are almost in, we need only another interview with the hiring manager who is currently on vacation, but should be back next week”. The person in question was at least 50 years old, maybe more. Next week I had the interview, and the manager said… sorry, but I got a candidate better qualified than you. It made me think either ageism or favoring a friend.
    Finally managed a new job as an “at will” contractor with a friend that started a new company. “At will” avoids the 18 month maximum contract length, and I can be fired at any moment if a client request so… but as I can work from home, no one sees me and I have proved my worth so far. Good salary, but no benefits (including vacation), though my friend do help where he can (pays for small 1 week vacations). Better than unemployed, but I wonder if I would be working if not for said friend.
    In conclusion: Ageism happens, working from home (if you can manage a job that allows it) is a way to avoid it. Unfortunately there’s not many work positions that you can work from home.