An experienced professional I know kept getting stuck in the final stages of her job search. She would make the cut, right down to becoming one of two finalists, then lose out to a much younger candidate. How, she asked, can she compete with someone who is younger than her kids? There are only two scenarios that can explain what was happening:
Scenario 1: Youth has nothing to do with it.
Losing out to much younger candidates may be a coincidence. If this woman is going after jobs in a traditionally young industry (e.g., advertising, consulting, finance), bumping up against someone many years younger will be the norm.
If that’s the case, a more experienced professional might be losing out not because she’s older, but because her callback interview technique is flawed.
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She might be losing steam after rounds of interviews (low energy is sometimes misinterpreted as low interest). She might be too candid in voicing her hesitations about the job, thinking this shows exhaustive due diligence when it actually projects doubts. She might fall short of whatever qualifications the other candidate has – industry expertise, technical skill, personality/fit. The other candidate might have better quality experience for the specific role, even if it’s less experience overall.
In this case, our job hunter should review how she’s positioning herself and if she’s promoting herself effectively enough to demonstrate fit with the role at hand. Rather than assume age is the deciding factor, she should examine her own role to see what she can refine and improve.
Scenario 2: Youth is the deciding factor.
If blatant age discrimination were the issue, our job hunter would be closed out well before the final round. Clearly, the companies were interested at first but then opted for the younger candidate. So why would age become an issue at the end? It comes down to side-by-side comparison.
I always get carded at casinos and bars -- anywhere you have to be over 21 to enter -- and the security person is usually red-faced when they figure out that I’m over 40. However, when I stand side-by-side with my oldest daughter, who actually is 18, I don’t look anything like her. Clearly I am not 18; suddenly, I look much older by comparison.
Similarly, our job seeker might seem like a good fit until the final round, a side-by-side comparison with a much younger candidate. Even if the reason she didn’t land the job is age-related, it’s still not insurmountable.
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Here’s what to do. Step one is to confirm what the youth factor means to the employer. Let’s say that it means being current on trends or technology. Step two for our candidate is to make a compelling case (and a better case than the younger candidate) for her knowledge in this area.
When youth is a deciding factor, you have to best younger job seekers on their turf. In addition, you should play up your natural advantages – perspective that only comes over time; a wider network, additional experience that would be relevant to this role.
You need to control what you can control. When age is not a factor, that means maximizing your late-stage interview technique. Are you competitive here? When age is a factor, you need to go above and beyond to neutralize the youthful advantage. For one of my over-50 clients, that meant outlining a social media strategy during the interview process so she didn’t just promise she could be current, she showed she already was. Are you truly the better candidate in a side-by-side comparison? That’s the question you have to be able to answer with a confident “Yes!”
Caroline Ceniza-Levine is a career expert with SixFigureStart®. She is a former recruiter in management consulting, financial services, media, technology, and pharma/ biotech.
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