Age discrimination over 50: Are you a victim — or a perp?

I’ve been reading discussions (on LinkedIn:Seattle and other forums) about age discrimination experienced by older professionals — discussions filled with anecdotes about incidents in which a company discouraged, ignored, or rejected a qualified over-50 job applicant for reasons related to their age.

I’m sure that many of the stories are true. And I suspect that, as a contractor, I sometimes lose opportunities based on my age and companies’ stereotypes about people over 50.

However, I’ve been reluctant to get into these discussions. That’s because I don’t have any objective data to bring to the table and posting yet another indignant individual tale of woe just fuels the general climate of self-righteous victimhood.

But now I have something to say. It’s based on reading a recent essay by a man who is well over 50. I’m not going to name the essayist, or even describe the essay in detail. What caught my attention was that at several points in the article the writer referred to himself as “out of date,” “ancient,” no longer active in the field, etc., etc. I realized that if an editor had removed that self-denigration and those apologies, I would have had no idea of the writer’s age. The essay topic itself would have been a logical one for an expert of any age in the field, and the writer’s age had nothing to do with his conclusions, or his ability to reach them.

So, what’s going on here?

Why do I keep encountering older professionals who seem compelled to make age an issue, to describe themselves and their peers over 50 as less technically competent and less intellectually nimble, and to do so at great length. I’m mystified by this stereotyping, and, as someone over 50, I’m annoyed. Because when I go in to talk with a prospective client who is 20 years younger than me, the chances are that they’ve recently encountered someone like the self-deprecatory essayist and are afraid that I’ll go off on a similar tangent.

Or they may have recently attended a professional meeting, like the one I was at last month, at which an older participant made sweeping, derogatory comments about the technical abilities of her over-50 peers.

I'm over 50 and totally confused.

I’m over 50 and a mess.

I'm over 50 and highly competent.

I’m over 50 and competent.

The meeting was a small seminar about new features for some website software we were all using for our businesses. The attendees were asked to introduce themselves. The younger men and women in the room all introduced themselves in a professional manner, describing their businesses and why they were interested in the new software features. But five of the over-50 participants proceeded to describe themselves as being afraid of technology, probably doing the wrong thing, and having no idea of what to do with website software. One woman went on at length about how, “of course, everyone my age is terrified of computers.”

I was embarrassed, and angry.

When the time came for me to introduce myself, I was surprised that I was able to unclench my jaw long enough to say I that I’m a social media communications consultant specializing in online content for technology startups and medical device companies. I left that seminar wondering if it was time to invest in hair dye and Botox.

Before I resort to those, I’m going to make an appeal to my age cohort.

Folks, I’ll be blunt. It’s hard enough dealing with media-fueled societal prejudice against people over 50 without having those of us who should know better mouthing the Madison Avenue script and perpetuating that stereotype. What is the point of running ourselves, and our contemporaries, into the ground?

If you’re having tough time with job interviews, client meetings, or networking events, it’s easy to blame that on age discrimination. But before you do, ask yourself if you are giving people a chance to judge you (and me) on the  basis of professional abilities — or are you frightening them off with your attitude first?

I’m not going to speculate on what’s causing this wave of self-inflicted ageism — there are no doubt many complex factors in play. But I am going to suggest that it stop.

Please get it together. Stop, thinking, acting, and talking as though anyone over 50 in the world of business is a victim. Not only are you sabotaging your own chances of securing good work, you’re taking the rest of us down with you.

9 responses to “Age discrimination over 50: Are you a victim — or a perp?

  1. I’m not 50 yet, but it’s still good to keep in mind. Now that I’m aware, I’ll be better able to catch it before I say things like that about myself.

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  2. It’s always struck me as weird to hear that “boomers aren’t comfortable with technology.” Who was laying the foundations of personal computers & the whole .com thing back in the ’80s & ’90s? Mind you, I think the current crop of 30-somethings are great with technology, even if they were spitting pablum back then.

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    • In some ways, the boomers who worked with earlier technology have a much better grasp of tech because they know how to fix it or implement workarounds. The young folks today who “take it for granted” know how to use all the bells and whistles, and are eager to try out the next new thing, but get stumped just like anyone else when the things they take for granted suddenly don’t work. I think the difference is attitude — the boomers grew up with their parents warning them about failure and criticizing much of what they did (especially anything that looked even vaguely like a — gasp –risk) while the current 20 and 30 somethings are pretty sanguine about taking chances, having been told all their lives that they are brilliant and talented. I will often see someone my age get frustrated with an iPhone, internalize it, and say “I must have done something wrong,” and someone much younger encounter the same problem, shrug, externalize it, and say “stupid iPhone — what a lousy phone.”

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      • One thing we can offer is empowering other people in our age group to be more confident about their technology skills — and their rights to expect decent user interfaces!

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  3. Karen, you’re spot on about that legacy that boomers got from their parents. Those parents were depression-era kids and post-war adults, living in a society that was substantially different from what we have today. In addition to risk-aversion, they taught that hard work was necessary *and sufficient* to succeed in the work force. I think a lot of us stunted our own careers by avoiding “risks” where we could have succeeded handily, and by ignoring self-promotion when we had a lot more to bring to the table than we would ever be GIVEN a chance to use.

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