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Is There Life After 40?

I don't often talk about the means I use to earn my living, except to occasionally note that I toil by day for one of the larger application lifecycle tools vendors. I speak of it now because that is about to change. I am in the midst of a job change, the first in half a dozen years and arguably the first that doesn't involve a significant change of careers altogether. I'll tell more about it when it's completed, but I wanted to explore a somewhat different spin on the job search process, that is, age discrimination.

I'm at that difficult age—somewhere between 40 and death—that gives one pause in light of all that has been written about the inability of older workers to obtain jobs for which they are highly qualified, usually losing out to younger and less qualified individuals who appear more energetic and enthusiastic. And it seems as you get older, the decision to move on is an increasingly difficult one. I'll admit that the pull of the current job became stronger as I spent more time in that role, even though it lacks the prospect of further professional growth that I know I'm capable of.

So I gingerly sought new opportunities. It was with some regret, as in my years with my current employer I had developed many personal relationships that were both fulfilling and functional. I was well paid, and the local office was only a few miles from my home, in the opposite direction from most rush-hour traffic. Jobs were certainly less available than the last time I went looking, but I thought I had an appreciation of both my strengths and the available market, and was ready to consider alternatives.

I was painfully cognizant that what I had gained in experience I had traded away in age. Would I have to take the inevitable pay cut for this new job? I didn't need the money, but it would be an indication that I had pretty much topped out at my career. Or would it be increasingly difficult to get from interview to offer. I always had trouble getting the interview, but once I did I could usually land the offer, usually by showing uncommon knowledge and enthusiasm. Would that still work, even as my hair added still more gray to its hue?

I don't have an answer to that one, but I'd like to relay an experience of my own, along with my conclusions surrounding that experience. At one point in my process, I interviewed at a large software company for a role for which I was uniquely qualified. I could have written the job description for myself, and I doubt there were more than a handful of people in the area as qualified as I was for this job.

The job was similar to what I did before I was promoted into my current position. I was forewarned that they couldn't match my current salary, but the pull of an opportunity for new and different experiences, yet building on things I enjoyed doing, was too high. The company was large (over half a billion dollars in yearly sales) and headquartered locally, and offered plenty of opportunity for professional growth.

So I interviewed. The hiring manager was about 12 years my junior, and looked younger still. The interview, which took place out on the cafeteria patio on a beautiful day, was cordial enough. However, I never felt as though I connected with the manager, even though I explained that I had performed a similar role several years earlier and understood his company and products well. When asked why I was looking to make a change, I emphasized a truthful desire for continued career advancement. Still, I didn't feel that I had impressed him sufficiently, and the interview and the opportunity ended.

I was supremely qualified, yet significantly older than the hiring manager. Clearly this was an act of age discrimination, right? Well, I don't think that was the case. Instead, the lesson I got from this experience is that older job seekers must send different messages from the ones they sent 15 years ago. Part of that is that a younger hiring manager needs to hear different things from an older applicant. In effect, I told him that I had already done everything that his job entails, and that I wanted it as a stepping stone to a more challenging position. Wrong!

I gave him no assurance that I wanted his job, or would grow well within it. The second mistake I made was to assure him that I fully understood the company business and products.You might think that it would be great for a prospective hire to step in and immediately understand your business and products. But I had preconceived notions, based on my experience with a product line the company had acquired several years earlier, and had noted my abortive effort to try to form a company to compete in a market hole left by that acquisition. That was probably an error too, as I told him I was prepared to compete against his company at one time. Rather than interpreting that as outstanding knowledge of the product line, he likely thought that I might well try to compete again in the future, given the opportunity. This is New England, after all, and the practice of shifting loyalties is not viewed favorably here.

I learned a lesson that day, and I didn't have to wait for the rejection to arrive in the mail to know that this wasn't going to happen. The lesson was that while my experience was important, my presentation was more important still. But it wasn't the same presentation I would have given 15 years ago. Specifically, I would have highlighted my experience, downplayed my knowledge of his company and the products, and stressed that I still had a lot to learn about the business of this company.

Knowing what I know now, could I have gotten this job? I think so. Would it have been a good move on my part? Probably not. Whatever his reasons, I think the young hiring manager made the correct decision. The job was a role I had outgrown, and I would likely have taken it with my sights set on rapid promotion, rather than fulfilling current responsibilities. My age figured into the equation, probably indirectly. But was it discrimination? No, it was my own failure to adapt to changing expectations.

Posted by Peter Varhol on 11/08/2004 at 1:15 PM


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