How many times have you applied for a new position and been told you’re “overqualified?” Yes, it’s infuriating. But it’s also a great starting point to get your act together, learn to come back stronger, and nail your career over 50.
Since when is experience a bad thing? Why does it seem so undervalued in today’s jobs marketplace? In this article, we’ll explore the phenomenon and unpack both sides of the issue. We’ll look at some of the reasons employers may be justifiably concerned about hiring older workers, examine the best ways to respond to this apparent age bias, and suggest some professional best practices you can use in your career over 50 to blow past the naysayers and connect with a great new job.
Where Is the Expiration Date On Our Experience?
Being deflected or rejected from landing an open position has become a common experience for many if not most candidates over 50. “Overqualification” is just one of many excuses that employers use to sidestep the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) that was passed to protect job seekers and employees over 40.
And the courts appear to be increasingly siding with employers in their interpretation of what does or does not constitute age discrimination. As reported in this New York Times article, employers may now reject applicants who have more than the years of experience listed on the job posting. A 58-year-old with a strong legal background applied to a position that stipulated no more than seven years experience. He was rejected in favor of a 29-year-old. He sued, but the court found for the employer.
Career Over 50: Myths Employers Believe
Our business culture has some catching up to do in the ways it characterizes and evaluates older workers and older job candidates. Here are some common misconceptions based on unexamined and outdated expectations of earlier generations:
Myth #1 – You’re going to retire soon.
This is an outdated myth based on the long-established practice of retiring at age 65. Statistics show that more and more people are remaining in the workforce longer and that sudden and total withdrawal from the workforce is a thing of the past.
Ironically, according to a LinkedIn survey, millennials are more likely to leave their current job, searching for better opportunities. Older candidates are actually more dependable, more stable, and more likely to hold onto their jobs longer. They are more intentional about their jobs. They aren’t using the job as a stepping stone, but actually want to be in the position.
Myth #2 – You’re not tech-savvy.
Digital natives aren’t necessarily better with technology. Growing up with smartphones and video games doesn’t mean that you’ll have an easier time learning Excel or Salesforce. Technology is a tool. If you’ve been in the workforce for decades, you will likely have been using computers for longer than many of your colleagues have been alive.
What’s important about tech is not which generation you belong to, it’s whether or not you understand why technology is important to the particular business function you’re dealing with. Experience and strategic thinking can be a more important determinant of tech success than youth.
Myth #3 – You’re not as healthy and will be more absent.
A survey conducted on 2000 workers by the insurance firm RIAS revealed that — compared to their younger peers, older professionals over 50 tend to take less time off due to sickness, especially without notice. They are more responsible, whereas more than half of younger employees who had a sick day admitted taking off more time than necessary, looking at it as an “additional holiday”.
Myth #4 – You can’t relate to younger generations.
In fact, older professionals tend to be more patient and more open – and this includes their attitudes toward younger co-workers. One of the most important assets that older workers bring to their job is the ability to mentor younger colleagues.
Why Employers Might Be Concerned
To be fair, put yourself in a hiring manager’s shoes. They might be justified in thinking that there might be some risks associated with hiring you to a position that you’ve done before, or that is significantly junior to one or more positions you’ve held previously. They might think that:
You’ll get bored.
It could be difficult for a younger manager and recruiter to understand why you’re applying for a more junior position that is not as complex or as responsible as what you’ve done in the past. To them, it doesn’t make sense. They look at this idea as a demotion and don’t understand why you’re interested.
You’re angling for an upgrade (or your manager’s job) and this is a foot in the door.
A hiring manager might assume that if the job you applied for is below your experience level, you might be trying to shoehorn your way into the company under false pretenses. They might think that your plan is to start looking to move up in the company as soon (or soon after) you arrive, They assume that you don’t really want this job and are just using it as a stepping stone.
Moment of Truth: Are They Right?
Be honest with yourself here. If you’re applying to a job you’re iffy about, or it’s a job you can do but you’re not really thrilled about doing, maybe an employer should be skeptical about whether you’re the best person for that job
If you really do want the job, you have to provide context. Connect the dots for them.
Remember: if the hiring manager is younger, they may not immediately understand that you’ve “been there, done that” and you’re happy to do the work without the authority and responsibility that you once had.
Assure them you’re motivated. Own it, be honest, and communicate that you shifted your priorities and want to support, not compete with them. By doing that, you’ll build trust and increase your success at being hired.
Your Hidden Benefits Agenda
Be expansive about your values. Blow past the concerns and reassure them. Here, you can play to your strengths:
- You actually bring additional value because of your experience. Don’t be afraid to tell them what your skills can bring to the table and how your background can contribute to the organization’s growth and success.
- Mentoring is a big deal. It’s a great way to build team cohesion and help workers bond with one another. As a candidate with a lot of experience, you have the capacity to mentor other workers, (including potentially your manager). It might be appropriate to tell the hiring manager (without sounding arrogant) that this is something that you would look forward to doing.
- Be the best listener. Actively listening to what’s going around you will help develop trust, collaborate more effectively, and build stronger relationships with your co-workers and management. Check out this rundown of the most important listening skills you can use to be more effective at your job.
- Articulate how (because of your experience) you can do more with less, create more ROI, and make fewer mistakes (because you’ve already made them all, lol!)
But… Your Experience May Be Overrated
Strange as it may sound, from their perspective, they may honestly not get why your experience matters. Here’s what to know and what to do:
No one wants to hear war stories. Resist the urge to talk about yourself as if you’re the expert. Just because you think your experiences are fascinating doesn’t mean that your new coworkers will, too. Droning on about the past might sound arrogant and this could alienate you from your colleagues. You may think you’re trying to help, but all you’re doing is boring them or putting them off.
Less experienced colleagues may even feel intimidated. They might be scared you know too much and assume they will be second-guessed at every step.
Instead of quoting from the past, try suggesting tactics, strategies, and solutions in the present. You don’t have to embellish your ideas. Make it about solving your colleagues’ problems.
Phrase your suggestions in a way that benefits them rather than showing off your knowledge.
Don’t feel you have to be the first to make a suggestion or point out a problem. Read the room!
You might benefit from holding back just a little bit. Let them come to you for solutions and advice. Once you’ve helped them out, let them know that you’re available to support them whenever they need help.
Most importantly, be humble. You may not intend to be a know-it-all, but if they’re a little insecure, they may feel awkward around your confidence. Reassure them that you’re interested in them and value what they have to say and contribute.
You may even find that they can teach you a few new tricks!
Revising Your Profile
To mitigate the chance that you will be perceived as overqualified, use your LinkedIn profile to paint an expansive picture of what you are looking to do in your career going forward.
LinkedIn is a great place to market yourself and identify your skills, relevant experience, and the kind of work you are interested in doing.
Address the “overqualified” issue up front as the main thrust of your LinkedIn “About” section. Explain that your focus at this point in your career is on taking on roles that both draw from your experience, but also give you the opportunity to continue doing the work that has been the most enjoyable for you.
Stress that this is the career focus you want to take, and you’re committed to it for x, y, z reasons. Don’t leave room for interpretation.
Address likely questions that might come up in an interview. Explain how your experience and skills make you an excellent candidate for the roles you are seeking. Describe how they contribute to your ability to perform with a high degree of excellence and productivity.
Imagine you are a recruiter reading your profile. What are some of the insights that you can share for your years of experience that would intrigue them or impress them and strengthen your qualifications for your intended positions?
Upgrading Your Profile
You may want to keep doing exactly what you’ve been doing previously. But look for new ways of expressing how you’re going to do an even better job than you have in the past.
Ask yourself: What are the changes in the business or the market that need to be addressed, and what am I going to do to address them? Are you up-to-date with all your industry’s trends and advancements? Do your research, network with colleagues, and consider taking courses to brush up on your knowledge. By being in the loop with the latest updates and skills related to your field, you demonstrate your willingness and ability to learn and grow — a key quality for older professionals.
Another critical question to ask yourself is what’s the next level of value/support I can provide? Remember: your experience is valuable even if younger (less-experienced) don’t have the perspective to understand that. In looking back over your career, look at how you can apply all of your lessons to be an even better team member and co-worker. Add these insights to your profile – both in the About section, but also as additional bullets in your Experience section.
What to Look For
Here are some additional things to think about as you’re mapping your job target strategies:
Look for positions and companies that share your future vision. Don’t try to squeeze yourself into jobs just because you can do them. Look for positions that reflect the real value that you represent and can provide. If you craft the right message through your LinkedIn profile, you will likely attract the people who need what you offer.
Look for recruiters you can open up with, who readily understand and appreciate your value. Recruiters can be your biggest allies, so look for opportunities to build relationships with them. And remember that recruiters have networks of other recruiters. They are constantly trading information on good candidates. If you can become one of their talked-about candidates, you’ll probably land a new position soon.
Volunteer opportunities are a great way to exercise your growth-mindset muscle. Choose an organization or a cause that is well-known in your industry and use your time to not only contribute to your community but to meet new people and grow your network. This activity and interaction will also help you gain a new perspective on your professional value and where it can be applied.
Overqualified? No! Totally Qualified!
You have a role to play in today’s and tomorrow’s economy. If you’ve been sitting on the sidelines or feeling discouraged by the pushback, age bias, or other challenges you’ve encountered, it’s time to flip the script for your career over 50.
Button up your story. Make sure you can explain and defend what you do, how well you do it, and why you want to do it.
Practice! Conduct mock interviews with friends and colleagues so your interview performance is energetic and confident (but humble).
If it’s not a “hell yes,” it’s a “hell no!” Focus on opportunities that are the most on-target and hopefully the most exciting. If you’re not finding them, poll your network for support, ideas, connections, referrals, and other suggestions. Use your volunteer opportunities to connect with new people. Broaden your perspective about what you can do and where you should be applying.
Let me know how you do, and if you encounter any roadblocks. Share your insights and experiences so that other readers can benefit.
John, lots of great actionable tips here. I try to focus on presenting myself as a lifelong learner in interviews. With many companies it’s not about what you did in the past, it’s more about how you will deal with the challenges of the future. I was well into middle age when I was hired at Apple. I had many interviews and was honest that while I was very fluent in stores and retail, I had never used a Mac computer. Showing them in interviews how I had learned other new products throughout my career sold them on hiring me. The fact that I came in like many of my customers, NOT being an authority on the technical aspects of the products, was an incredible gift allowing me to direct my teams and hire the right people. I took an underperforming location to #7 in global comp sales increases. Rather than focus on how you can mentor your new company, talk about how you learn and apply those learnings in your interview.
Great insights, Rick – I love how you took what most people would think of as a deficit (your lack of familiarity with the product) and turned it into a strength: your ability to empathize with the customer and to leverage their mindset from a retailer’s perspective.