Age Discrimination: If Old is Gold, Why Can’t I Find A Job?

I am a “baby boomer.” At the age of 56, I should be enjoying my life as an older worker,  basking in the glory of a long, established and successful work history.

My kids are self-sufficient and I should be looking forward to spending my days travelling and taking up hobbies I never had time for. I should be writing this from my home office, in my three bedroom, three bath house, and then cozy-up near the fireplace, to watch TV, in our family room. We should have dinner parties, go to shows or concerts, trade in our cars every few years, and once a year plan a fabulous family vacation, in locations including Hawaii, the Bahamas, Mexico, and even Europe and Asia.

First and foremost, we would have plenty of money put away in ‘retirement plans,’ a 401K and other investments we’ve made through the years. Since we planned well, we’d be all set for retirement, and have plenty put away for our kids, when we pass. This is as close to the “American Dream” as it comes!

However, my real lifestyle is as far from this as Wisconsin is from Singapore! Part of it is due to my husband becoming disabled on the job, some 20 years ago. Because of the severity of his condition, he hasn’t worked since 1995. He receives monthly Social Security Disability Benefits, which are absolutely ridiculous, not to mention insulting, when I think of the amount of money he used to earn, and would have continued to if this hadn’t happened.

We moved from Chicago to Madison, in 1990, and in ’92, I had my youngest child, who is now 18. My other son was 3 ½, and between my decision to stay home and raise my kids, and my husband’s medical problems, it was some years before I could return to the workforce, on a full-time basis.

By the time I could think about working full-time, I had been out of the workforce for nearly 10 years, and was 43 years old. I, the big shot, thought any company would hire me on the spot. I had never been so wrong about anything before, in my life! I honestly couldn’t even estimate the number of jobs I applied for between that time and now, but I’m sure it climbed toward the thousands.

I had skills and experiences, in many areas, and so I thought it would make me an asset, as a well-rounded person. However, I had no degree, hadn’t worked in a professional capacity in almost 10 years, and what made me so in demand before we moved, was now obsolete and technically outdated.  Since I lived in Madison, WI, with the University of Wisconsin [that happened to rank 17 on a list of the top 500 universities, worldwide] a ten minute drive from my home, I believed my lack of a degree was my biggest problem. I was competing for jobs with recent college graduates and didn’t have a chance.

Long story short, after a very time consuming and tiring job search effort, I finally found a permanent position at an insurance company, through an employment agency, in 1999.

I thought my inability to find work easily was because I didn’t have a degree, so I showed them, and went back to school!  Once I had my degree, I thought things would magically be different. With my practical experience, current education, and high GPA, I figured I couldn’t miss. I was wrong, very wrong. Nothing changed from the day before I started school, other than putting myself $100K US in debt.

Searching for jobs was still an uphill battle. I tried every angle I could think of, such as taking out all dates from my resume, always wearing something appropriate and spent a great deal of time getting my hair and make-up just right, for an interview. Since I’m very short, I always wore heels, the higher the better, and had great posture, probably from the years of ballet I took. I looked my interviewer in the eye, had a strong handshake, brought a list of questions, as I did my homework and studied the company, and sent thank you notes to all interviewers, as soon as I got home.

Once this continued to the point of no explanation, it was the first time I seriously considered I was facing age discrimination because I was an older worker.

One reason I had such a hard time considering my age was holding me back — because it just didn’t make sense. Why would any employer not grab an older worker who had the technical skills, a current, relevant education, experience working in relevant environments, knowing how to interact with people, and having the wisdom and insight a person could only get through experiencing life for this many years? It wasn’t logical. I remember only too well how I acted in a place of business 30+ years ago. I certainly didn’t take anything seriously, and in my mind it was more about making social connections, than about doing work. Older workers are much more settled, are serious about the work they do, have no other agendas, and won’t call in sick because they’ve been out getting drunk, the night before! Why is this so hard to understand?

Some of the biggest myths about older workers, is we can’t learn new skills, we don’t stay on the job long and take off too much time, we’re too slow and inflexible, and expect to be treated with “kid gloves.”

I returned to school in 2005, at the age of 50 and graduated when I was 54. Not only was I capable of learning new skills, but I excelled in my courses. I was a very poor student as a child and in high school, so in my case, I actually was able to learn and retain more the older I got! Out of the 32 total classes I wound up taking, in 27 I earned a grade of ‘A,’ and for my bachelor’s degree, I earned a 3.8 GPA.

What’s more, they say older workers not computer savvy, yet all my courses had a big focus on online learning.  As far as not staying on a job long or taking off time, I always joked with my interviewers, saying, “At least I won’t be taking off time to have babies!”

Of course things are changing, and many companies do see the value of mature workers. Retailers such as Home Depot, Sears, Roebuck and Co, Wal-Mart and Radio Shack are just a few companies that are actively looking to hire older employees. You should learn about and seek such employers. However, as an older worker looking for a job, you also need to do what you can to bust such myths and convince employers they are not applicable for your case.

One expert in the field of workforce development and career counseling made a rather startling revelation about age discrimination. She feels many older job hunters are so convinced the reason they can’t find a job is due to age discrimination, they may be unwittingly sabatoging the situation. She calls it “reverse age discrimination,” or “reverse age bias.” Older job seekers often make inferences about younger supervisors and workers, just as younger workers assume things about us, mature workers. It’s particularly difficult when we know our experiences and knowledge are far beyond an individual who has the power to decide if we do or do not get the job, and it’s hard not to let our attitude affect what we say or how we come across. Unintentionally, we sometimes come across as being arrogant, overconfident, or superior; behavior that surely won’t win us any job!

Other things older workers may do that hinder employment are refusing to learn new technology, especially computer skills, and believing job-hunting methods that worked 10 or 20 years ago, will still work today. Don’t let such things hold you back.

As an older worker, your job search will be hard and you might face age discrimination. I have tried to point out some issues which cause this, so that you can work towards overcoming them. I think focusing on these makes more sense, as opposed to more ‘cosmetic’ suggestions you might read about, to hide your age during you job search. One way or another, employers will find out how old you are eventually.

Test Drive Your Job References With A Fake Call

job search references

The job search is time consuming and involves many activities. One area which you probably aren’t spending enough time on, is your job references. What you should know, is that a bad job reference can make you lose a job offer which was coming your way.

Most companies will get in touch with people you have worked with/for previously and ask them about your behaviour and performance. This includes people you have provided as job references and might also include people not on your list.

The information received from these people is often seen as a credible, independent and first-hand perspective. When speaking over the phone it is also possible for employers to probe for details and read between the lines. So it certainly carries more weight than the job reference letters you might have received, which are too generic, often contain similar words for everyone and frequently have positive statements which might not be true (and employers know this).

If one of your important references (such as a previous supervisor) says negative things about you, this can make employers change their mind about hiring you and pick another candidate. You obviously don’t want this to happen and here are a few things you can do to avoid such a situation:

Select Each Job Reference Carefully

This goes without saying. You should select people who will be more likely to say positive things about you.

Provide Enough Job References

Don’t provide just 1-2 job references. Go with 3-5 so that employers feel they have enough people to talk to, which reduces the chances of them contacting people not on your list.

Take Permission From Your Job References

It is a good idea to call people you intend to use as a job reference and ask them if it’s alright for potential employers to contact them. If you already took their permission during a previous job search effort, then make sure to give them a heads-up the next time you are looking for a job, so they know that people might be calling them to talk about you and can prepare accordingly.

Train & Arm Every Job Reference

If possible, have a discussion about what they could say and provide them with enough information/data/reminders about all the good work you did.

And Here’s The Best One – Test Drive Your Job References

You never know what people might do and there is no harm in taking some precautions. So ask a friend to pose as an employer and call your job references, to ensure they aren’t saying any bad things about you.

Singapore Job Application FAQ: Should you provide salary information?

Many job advertisements in Singapore ask applicants to provide their previous/current and expected salary. This information could be used to:

1) Quickly weed out candidates who earn/expect well above the salary the employer wants to pay

2) Have a better understanding of your salary expectations, so that they don’t pay you too much more than you expect (sometimes even if they think the job role justifies a higher amount!)

While you don’t want to upset potential employers by not providing information they explicitly ask for, you don’t need to provide exactly what they ask for either.

My recommendation is to give a broad range for both the previous/current and the expected salary. Something like this, for example:

Example 1 -> Previous/Current/Expected salary range: SGD 4,000 – SGD 6,000

Example 2 -> Previous/Current salary: SGD 4,000 – SGD 6,000; Expected Salary: SGD 5,000 – SGD 7,000

This achieves a few things:

  1. You provide them with the information they ask for
  2. You minimise the chances of being weeded out in early stages
  3. You leave enough room for negotiating a fair salary, once you progress through the selection process and have a better understanding of the exact job scope

How to resign from a job, professionally and gracefully

When leaving an employer it is best to make a graceful exit, no matter how much you dislike your supervisor, peers or the company. Doing so is best for your reputation in the long term and you never know who you might cross paths with in the future.

Here are a few tips on how to resign properly:

  • Before you submit a formal resignation letter, have a talk with your supervisor(s). Explain your reasons for leaving the job and re-assure them, that you will make the transition as smooth as possible. Also agree on how much notice you should provide. In most cases, the proper response from your supervisor should be to wish you luck and to offer you any help you might need. They might even provide some useful company/department specific information on how to resign.
  • In some instances, your supervisor or others in your company might react badly to your resignation. They might behave rudely and display other behaviour which is not appropriate. Sometimes they might try to make you feel guilty about leaving. Remember, that you are not doing anything wrong by leaving the company and there is no reason to feel guilty. Also keep in mind that such a reaction is not good practice. Try to maintain your composure and be graceful in your exit, even if your employer in Singapore is not.
  • Check your employment contract and company policy, to have a clear idea of what formalities need to be taken care of. You should be clear on your expected entitlements – such as expense claims, unused vacation/sick leave and other benefits you should receive. For many of these you will typically receive monetary compensation on a pro-rata basis.
  • Get in touch with HR and provide them a formal resignation letter. Make sure to mention you last day of work and to request them to confirm all formalities you need to go through and to also confirm your entitlements/dues.
  • Try to spend your last days in the company as though you were not leaving. In other words, keep your work standard at the same level and complete all outstanding assignments (as far as possible)
  • Avoid burning any bridges and maintain good relations with people at work. Get the contact details for people who you want to stay in touch with and maintain as part of your network.
  • Your employer might say that they do not want to lose you and are willing to provide sweeteners (such as better salary or change of role/job scope). In this case, it is recommended to only take the offer if you think it is very lucrative/attractive. Studies/research has shown that people who do so, typically leave within a year (or might be asked to leave as well). This is because, although you might stay back, you have made it clear to your employer that you are not committed to the organisation.

I hope you found these pointers on how to resign useful. All the best in your new role!