Perhaps the most infuriating and demoralizing response to your job application is the condescending question: “Don’t you think you’re a bit overqualified for this job?”
This question is right at the top of the list of frustrations that my clients share with me as they recover from a job loss or attempt to transition to a position that represents the kind of work that they want to do at this stage of their lives.
Why Does Your Experience Work Against You?
This is one of the other strange examples of cognitive dissonance that job seekers encounter over 50. Instead of valuing your years in your profession, many recruiters and employers feel threatened by the very qualities that make you a great candidate.
What are their concerns?
You’re Aiming Low
If you’re applying for a job whose job description seems to encompass roles and responsibilities that you’ve done in the past – perhaps even much earlier in your career – the recruiter or hiring manager won’t understand why you’re not applying for a job with more apparent “seniority.”
Here’s what’s going on. They may not understand that for you, it’s not about seniority or your position in the pecking order -or even the salary. At this point in your career, especially because you’ve had those positions with more responsibility, you may justifiably be looking to just do the work that you most enjoy doing.
They may not understand that after decades of striving to get a top job, you’ve realized that this is a position that actually represents the best of what you love to do and actually do best. It may also constitute a better work-life balance that is now much more at the forefront of your life agenda.
Remember also that from their frame of reference, career is all about “UP, UP, UP!” So the idea that someone could have a different, more nuanced view of a career at your life stage may be a new or a strange concept for them.
You’ll Get Bored
This is a corollary objection to the idea that you’re aiming low. They think – and this may be one of the concerns they voice openly – that because you’ve done this job before, you won’t feel challenged or motivated to do your best work.
This is a very strange (and blatantly ageist) notion. Presumably, you’ve applied to the job because you know what the job is (after all: you’re experienced!). So why would you knowingly apply for the job if you thought it would bore you? In fact, you’re applying because you know exactly what the job is and it’s exactly what you want.
But they seem to miss that idea. Looking at the question another way, doesn’t it make more sense that someone who’s never done the job before runs a greater risk of getting bored? After all, they don’t really know what they’re getting into and might not like it. You, on the other hand, are walking in with eyes wide open. You know what you’re getting into. You’re actually being much more intentional than the younger, less experienced candidate they think they’re looking for.
So if you’re feeling a bit plucky, you might ask them about this and challenge their logic. The truth is (and job tenure statistics back this up), that you are much more likely to enjoy and remain in the position for a longer period of time.
You’re Using This as a Stepping Stone
Just imagine the conversation between the recruiter and the hiring manager. Since they don’t understand why you could possibly be interested in a job that they deem to be lower-level (and assume that you see it that way, too), they come to the conclusion that you must have ulterior motives in applying for the role.
They suspect that you want to use the position to get a toe-hold in the company and advance from there into a higher-level position that must really be your goal. The hiring manager may even be threatened that with your impressive credentials, you could be gunning for their job.
You’re Going to Be Unmanageable
With all of your experience, you’re not going to be a cooperative team player. You’re going to think you know better than the rest of your team. Worse, you’re going to think you know better than the hiring manager. It’s not worth the risk of hiring you if you’re going to question every decision or quote chapter and verse about how you used to perform the same tasks when you were younger or in a different company.
You’re Set in Your Ways
File this under “out of date,” “out of touch,” “intransigent,” and “reluctant to change.” This is the final bit of ageism that caps the “overqualified” objections list. Even though professionals over 50 (that’s gen-x and boomers) have been using computers on the job for the past thirty years, there is still a lingering bias that older professionals don’t get tech.
By the way, did you know that 52.4 million Americans over 50 (45%) play video games at least once a month?
Pushing Back: Not “Overqualified.” Perfectly “Qualified!”
Let me preface this section by observing that things are changing in the job market for mid-career professionals nearing and over 50.
Managing in a complex and rapidly changing business environment requires a steady hand – and at every level. Particularly since the pandemic there has been increasing focus on the quality of the workplace environments and on the management and leadership qualities needed to successfully run them.
There is a slow but steady dawning of awareness on the value of a multi-generational workforce and how different age cohorts enrich one another’s experience and support innovation and productivity.
Workers over 50 are a proportionately growing demographic in the workforce. Employers are finding it harder to hire younger candidates with the right qualifications. Increasingly, they are turning to older candidates to get the job done.
So with that more optimistic preamble, let’s look at ways you can effectively and positively counteract the reflexive (and outmoded) fears that being “overqualified” disqualifies you from that job you’re applying for.
Don’t Wait For Them
Address this issue upfront. Don’t let them play their hand. Cut them off before they even articulate their concern. By being proactive, you’re demonstrating a certain level of mindfulness about the position and the hiring process. If they are indeed concerned about you being overqualified, your addressing it is going to immediately put them (at least somewhat) at ease.
It means that you understand how your applying to the job could appear to them. You may be a good deal older than the majority of their applicants. By acknowledging this issue in the initial conversation, you draw their attention to the elephant in the room and fast-track the process of addressing and hopefully dissipating their concerns.
And if they actually don’t think you’re overqualified, so much the better. It still gives you an opportunity to address the reasons you’re interested in the job (see below).
If it’s Not a “Hell, Yes!”, it’s a “Hell, No!”
If you think you’re going to be flagged as “overqualified” for a job you’re applying to, first do your homework. Drill down into the job description and make sure that you really do understand and want to do this job. In fairness to the employer, only apply if you really can give it your all.
This isn’t just advice for older workers facing the “overqualified” label. It’s good advice for everyone. Remember that they’re looking for someone who really wants to be there and do this work – regardless of age, skills, or experience. This is true in your job search no matter what job you’re applying for. If you’re in any way half-hearted about this position, don’t apply for it.
I realize that many of you may say: “But I need the job!” That may well be true. But if you can’t make a great case for why you’re the best person for the gig, including the real, authentic reasons why you truly want it, you’re probably not going to get it, whether you’re overqualified or not.
Making Your Case
If you’ve done your research, and you know and like the job description – and any other information you can find about the company and the hiring manager – you can head off the “overqualified” concerns by addressing each of the five objections I listed above.
There are really three different contexts at play here across those five objections. First is the concern about aiming lower or getting bored. Second is the concern about your underlying motivation in applying for the job. Third is the concern about your overall working attitude.
This Is What You’re Looking For
When you open the conversation, start by acknowledging the context. Say that you realize that some people might question why you’re applying for this job. Run through the first two potential objections and explain the reasons why this job is the perfect fit for you at this point in your career. Acknowledge that this might seem counterintuitive, but that you don’t see the job as a step down or a step back. Talk about the job description and how it actually draws on your strengths. Explain how, after everything you’ve done, you know that this is actually what you want to be doing – and that’s why it is a position that will continue to hold your interest.
You’re Done Playing Games
While you might have viewed this differently earlier in your career, for all the reasons you’ve just listed, this job is your actual goal. There is no stealth plan. There is no ulterior motive. Reassure them that you welcome the opportunity to spend all of your time doing the work without the hassles of competing for promotions or climbing the corporate ladder. Because this is the work that you want to do, this is the work you’re going to focus on. You’re certainly happy to share any insights that you’ve gleaned from your industry experience. However, your primary motivation in taking the job is to bring all of that experience to fulfill the job description.
You Bring a Growth Mindset
This is the most important part of your spiel. Indeed, your day-to-day attitude on the job is going to determine whether or not you are a true “fit” for the position. Don’t dwell on past achievements as the reasons they should hire you. Talk about the present and the future. Talk about what you have learned and are continuing to learn about your work and your industry (and the company) and how you want to leverage that learning to deliver at the highest level.
Talk about your interest in working with your team, and in delivering for the team and your manager by applying your experience to support them. You may not need to mention the word “mentor,” but your clear implication is that you want to use your experience as an asset for the benefit of all. It won’t be a cudgel you’ll use to act superior or to compete with your colleagues.
You recognize that what worked ten or more years ago may be irrelevant to what’s going on today. However, the experience of overcoming obstacles, iterating new approaches, and encouraging others is something that you value highly and intend to bring with you to benefit your team and the company.
Your Professionalism Matters
At the end of the day, they’re either going to understand and appreciate you or they won’t. If they don’t, it’s their loss – and you dodged a bullet. If you couldn’t persuade them and build rapport during the hiring process, you would be unhappy with the job no matter what.
While the “overqualified” objections may have some small basis in reality, and represent a few bad actors in the candidate pool, you and the overwhelming majority of job seekers over 50 are precious talent who should not be overlooked.
By positively and firmly addressing this concern, you are actually raising the consciousness of the recruiters and hiring managers you’re dealing with. Your candor and your understanding of their position will be refreshing and help you build rapport with them. Even if you wind up not getting the job, the chances are that you will have made a friend or friends in the process. This could lead to referrals to other open positions. And if they go with another candidate, it will be because of other qualifications or criteria – not because they still consider you to be overqualified.