The Big Job Interview Question: How to Overcome Age Bias and Be The Person They Want to Hire


Focusing on who you are, not just what you know, is an unappreciated strategy to successfully overcome age bias, nail your job interview, and land that great job.

The typical job interview format focuses on skills and experience. Typical recruiters and hiring managers want to find out if you tick the boxes on their job description checklist. But for older workers, age bias adds a significant challenge.

For older workers, age bias is invariably going to be lurking below the surface of the conversation. The interviewer may not even realize that they are bringing their unconscious bias into the room.

Your strategy will be to distract them with your openness, enthusiasm, great listening skills, smart questions, easy-going attitude, and emotional intelligence. Win them over by dropping below their radar and circumventing their expectations.

Even though your goal is to get the offer, you want to be of a mindset where you’re 100% committed and enthusiastic about the job, but also 100% detached from the outcome.

This approach is the best way to pull them out of their pre-conceptions, surprise them with your positive energy, and get them thinking that, Wow! You could be the right person for the position.

Of course, you’re not going to ace every interview, but as a matter of principle, if you employ this mindset strategy, you’re going to land sooner or later and will likely generate respect and make friendships in the process. It’s also an approach that is going to leave you feeling like you did everything right in the interview, regardless of whether they offer you the job.

It’s a strategy Oscar Wilde would have probably approved of: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”

Let’s Get Right To It: The Age Factor

Given the lack of multi-generational culture in most businesses today, it’s not a surprise that a millennial recruiter would feel awkward interviewing a boomer or an older gen-x. The cruel joke about hiring older people is that millennials don’t want to “hire Mom or Dad for the position.” Ouch.

They would feel perfectly comfortable trying to build rapport with someone closer to their age, but won’t know how to do the same thing with you.

It’s ironic because most of the decision-making around any position is going to come down to figuring out which candidate would be the best person to work with. So if they can’t build rapport with you, even if they think they’ve tried, you’re not going to get to the next round.

This is not an open and shut case, and there can be a lot of ambivalence around hiring you, even if the people you meet are cordial and not consciously aware of their age bias. If you’ve been called in for the interview, there’s a good chance that your skills and experience (and the phone screener you likely had) are pointing in the right direction and they’re open to you. If you haven’t been trying to hide your age in your resume or on LinkedIn, then overt ageism isn’t the obvious problem.

In fact, what we’re finding out is that age bias is a very fluid issue that’s very hard to pin down. As an experiment, my colleague David Stewart of the media site dressed up as a hip-hop kid to see if people on the street could guess his age. He’s 59, but people’s perceptions were driven by his wardrobe and his attitude, so no one guessed his age accurately.

Nevertheless, there may end up being insurmountable ambivalence about offering you the position. I know of many older people who are brought in on interviews almost as curiosities. They want to meet with you and may actually be impressed with you, but they have no intention of actually offering you the job. The age bias is so thick, or their own awkwardness is just too much of an obstacle, that they’re never going to think you could be a good fit.

Adapting to New Strategies

Your old assumptions and prior experiences about how to succeed in your job interview no longer apply. Unconscious age bias adds a filter that distorts the interviewer’s perception of you. It will subtly invalidate the objective reasons why your skills and talents meet the job description.

To circumvent this obstacle, you have to appeal on an affective, emotional level and short circuit the age bias. While it’s easy to decry the injustice of age bias in hiring, it is something that is not going away anytime soon. So we have to work around it as well as working directly on it. In one of my LinkedIn Learning courses, I focus on ways in which we can encourage younger managers to detect and deflect age bias in their ranks.

Bring Your Experience Present

This may seem counter-intuitive, but talking about your experience is not as persuasive as you think it is. With decades in the workforce, you think you have so much to offer. Your experience and the depth of your knowledge should be perceived as an asset, shouldn’t it?

As they say in the financial services business, past performance is not an indicator of future results. Business today is in constant upheaval and flux. What worked as recently as five or ten years ago may no longer be effective. Talking about your ten or twenty-year-old successes will only date you.

From the younger person’s perspective, your decades of experience can be very intimidating. Imagine yourself in your thirties. You had no idea of what lay ahead for you. Only now, looking back, can you understand and appreciate the value of what you’ve done and been through.

Your experience won’t have the contextual value for them that it does for you. They won’t be able to connect the dots and understand the nuance of how things that happened years ago can apply to today’s problems and solutions.

Older candidates frequently make the mistake of dining out on their experience. That practice can be especially ineffective in a job interview, where it only serves to reinforce age bias and build a wall between you and the interviewer.

Fortunately, you don’t need to tout your experience to apply it in your interview.

In preparing for your interview, study the company, its management, its history, its current products, services, and initiatives. Speak about them in the context of what’s happening in your industry today. Ask questions and discuss ideas exclusively from a current perspective. Use current reference points that the interviewer can understand and relate to.

This makes the interview about “now,” and reassures the interviewer that you are actually a contemporary who speaks the same language.

job interview age bias

Mindfulness, “EQ,” Vulnerability, and Transparency

The biggest concern we all have in job interviews is talking about the bad stuff – the getting fired, the unemployment gap, the job-hopping… We all have baggage, and it can be uncomfortable to talk about it. But talking about it is potentially a huge win for you, one that can be the single biggest ice-breaker in the conversation.

Use the most sensitive topics to build rapport with your interviewer and destroy any inter-generational barriers.

We should know better than to think that they won’t bring it up. And if they don’t bring it up, they’re thinking about it. So you should bring it up. You’ll get points no matter what.

Practice makes perfect. Do mock interviews with a close friend or colleague who can confront you with your baggage and help you come up with the fluent and persuasive responses that will both put your interviewer at ease, and actually create a bond with them.

As an older worker, they’re expecting you to be wiser, more emotionally intelligent, and more accepting of yourself and your past. Their concern is that you’re going to take an arrogant attitude about it and preach as if you’re some kind of sage. Instead, be a humble, self-accepting, talented, and experienced professional who is comfortable talking about their biggest challenges – and the lessons you’ve learned from them. That can be inspiring to a younger interviewer who is probably hoping (as they hear you tell your story) that they can have the same equanimity and maturity when they get to be your age.

Again, your age and experience are already likely very intimidating to them. So be human. Be vulnerable. Set a great example that will disarm and impress them. Be self-deprecating. Laugh at yourself.

Imagine them going back to their team and saying: “You won’t believe how awesome this person was. They were so open! We’ve got to have them back to meet everyone.”

Be the Position

Act as if you’re already in the job. This doesn’t mean that you’re arrogant, or a know-it-all. It means that you are comfortable with what you know. It means you don’t have anything to hide or be defensive about. You’ve done your research, feel comfortable taking on the role, and are present and open to discussing anything that the interviewer wants to know about you.

Act as if you are already dealing with the issues, requirements, or challenges that you see in the job description – or that you ask about in the interview.

This is where you can bring in your experience – but don’t pontificate. Offer up the solution as something that you’ve tried before, or that you can back up with research or data.

Ask about the people you’ll be working with. Don’t focus on your prospective manager. In an increasingly team-based workforce, it’s almost more important that you develop and maintain excellent collaborative relationships with your peers. Managing “across” is the new Managing “up.” Your focus on the team will be another way to shift the perception that you are wedded to legacy hierarchical management paradigms.

Talk about yourself as a whole person. Expect them to be interested in your values, your causes, even your eccentricities. But be smart. Focus on common themes that cross generations. Talking about mentoring your kid to help them get into college might not be the right story for the job interview. Even if it would be a perfect thing to share, wait until you’re in the job and they know you and love you.

Be Of Service

When we go on an interview, everyone always tells us to “Be yourself! You’ll be fine!” But that doesn’t really address the anxiety we have in this precarious encounter. We have a lot riding on it. Even if it’s just one interview among many, each potential rejection is a difficult loss to process, particularly if age bias is part of the rejection. Our jitters can hijack the interview and we hide our true self under the mistaken and outdated idea that we’re better off being stoic and dispassionate.

The result is that we spend the session following the interviewer’s lead and answering their questions reactively. We get off course playing catchup, trying too hard, or trying to impress them with our skills and experience.

There’s a remarkably simple solution to transmute the fight-or-flight response we experience in interviews: be of service. Take the position that you are there to help them find the best and most appropriate candidate for the position, even if that person is not you.

Two Quick Stories:

Years ago, I had a mind-shifting conversation with a young actor at a party. At some point, I asked him about going out on auditions, and about how difficult it must have been to get so many rejections. I wondered whether over time it had led him to be more hardened or cynical about the process.

His response surprised me. Instead of feeling bad about the rejections, he told me that he had come to a key realization. He understood that he wasn’t the right fit for every part and that there were many factors that went into the casting decision process.

He realized that even if he didn’t get the part, his audition was one small step towards the team deciding what they did want, even if he was not it. So each audition for him became an offering, given freely and without expectation. If he could help them get one step closer to their final casting decision, he had played a small but important part in that process. As a result, he always felt invested in his work and his audition, and getting the part was an added bonus.

In addition to helping him feel good about his work and about every audition, his attitude burnished his reputation among the casting directors. So he found himself called into more auditions. And the more auditions he went on, the more parts he eventually landed.

Dan Goetz, an operations executive I interviewed for my book Boomer Reinvention, was out of work for over a year following a layoff. He adopted a very similar attitude to that of my actor friend. He just decided to let go of any attachment to getting the job. Instead, he did all the research he could on the company and their needs and current status, and went in to the interview as a mentor on a service mission.

Dan’s playbook was to figure out how he could help them in the interview. He knew that he had no control over whether or not he was the “right fit,” but he could offer his point of view. He asked about the company’s issues, and shared solutions and wisdom that he had gathered over the course of his career.

Interestingly, the job he eventually got happened because a hiring manager who had rejected him was so impressed with how he conducted himself in the interview. That man referred him to another company where he was a better fit and got a great offer that led to many more opportunities.

Chase Relationships, Not Open Positions

While it’s definitely important to be proactive and to go after the positions you believe you’re suited for, I encourage you to take the counter-intuitive position that winning friends is more important than winning offers.

As you get older and begin to think more about your purpose, your values, and your legacy, you realize that how you behave with people, and how you engage with them, is increasingly important. Even if you are desperate to find a job, or frustrated by the challenges you’re experiencing, you know that blaming others and playing the victim card doesn’t really work. Nor will it change your circumstances or mitigate the age bias you’re encountering.

Start investing in your professional relationships now, and continue to invest in them every day. It is your network that will funnel you to the most appropriate positions and opportunities.

No matter whether or not you’re currently looking for a job, I want to propose the following exercise. Start a spreadsheet with the names of the ten people you’ve met or interacted with over the past month with whom you felt some sense of rapport or understanding. As you meet more people like this, add them to your spreadsheet. Look for opportunities to engage and to interact with these people. Send them articles or event announcements, refer them to other professionals in their field.

Make sure that these people represent a wide range of ages, backgrounds, interests, and skillsets. Expand your mind around the kind of people who could be your business friends. You are building the foundation of a network that will lead you to the jobs you want. Your job interviews will be more productive. You’ll make more new friends, and will ultimately find the work that you really want to do.

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John Tarnoff is an executive and career transition coach, speaker, and author who supports mid and late-career professionals in defining, planning, and achieving more meaningful and sustainable careers.

Fired 39% during his 35 years as a film producer, studio executive and tech entrepreneur, he learned how to turn setbacks into successes in a volatile business. He reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in counseling psychology to share his career lessons with others going through similar challenges.

Since leaving entertainment in 2010, John has coached individuals, groups, and led career workshops for university alumni, including for UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Corporate coaching clients have included Bank of America, Bridgewater Assoc., Levi-Strauss, Softbank, TD Ameritrade, and Thrive Global.

He is the author of the best-selling Boomer Reinvention: How to Create your Dream Career Over 50 and has been named a Top Influencer in Aging by PBS/NextAvenue.


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