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.
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.