Age discrimination in hiring is illegal. Nevertheless, it happens, and it's one of the reasons why workers over age 50 experience longer bouts of unemployment than younger people.
A study on laid-off workers from 2008 to 2012 shows 65 percent of those older than 62 were still unemployed after 12 months, compared to 47 percent of those ages 50 to 61; 39 percent for those ages 35 to 49; and 35 percent of those ages 25 to 34, according to economist Richard Johnson, senior fellow at the Urban Institute.
Biases are one barrier blocking older workers from good opportunities, says Dan Ryan, principal of Ryan Search & Consulting: "There's a perception among some people making hiring decisions that [older workers] may be less adaptable to change."
Salary expectations are another salient factor that sometimes work against older people who are hunting for jobs.
"Many people making hiring decisions think that they can hire someone with less experience, if the job warrants that, for a lower rate of pay," Ryan says.
So what can older workers do to improve their chances on the job market? Experts recommend the following approaches:
Improve Your Digital Footprint
Most modern jobs require at least some use of digital technology, and in many industries the hiring process itself has migrated online. That means it's important for older workers to demonstrate that they're savvy with digital tools and to use best practices with social media.
Older workers should take the time to create strong profiles on the business social network LinkedIn, experts say. Highlight specific skills and completed projects, suggests Josh Howarth, district president of Robert Half human resources consulting firm. Take advantage of the option to use a vanity URL – one that clearly identifies your name – for your profile, says Ashley Inman, who works in human resources for the multinational company Ferrovial.
And only use photos that look professional, says Unique Morris-Hughes, interim director of the Washington DC Department of Employment Services, which offers a program that helps people ages 50 to 64 find work.
"You might love your grandkids, but it's not the best idea in your photo to include you and all your grandkids," she explains. "Avoid the playful photos that make folks question your seriousness or your intent." Instead, for LinkedIn photos, she recommends that job seekers wear clean, white shirts and ask friends or relatives to take simple headshots with the camera lens focused on the face.
Just like all job seekers, older workers should learn about privacy settings on the social media accounts they use and "avoid posting things that are controversial or could be considered inappropriate," Morris-Hughes says.
The email address you use may accidentally reveal your age, Ryan warns. Email services offered by AOL, Yahoo and Hotmail date back to the 1990s, while Gmail launched in 2004, making it more likely that someone who uses AOL, Yahoo or Hotmail is "a more mature worker," Ryan says. He advises job seekers to ditch AOL accounts in favor of a more modern option. It's also important that your email address has a professional username.
Keep It Current
Your resume should reflect your experience, not your age.
If you've worked for three or four decades, you're probably proud of all that labor. But hiring managers are only interested in your experience that's most relevant to their needs.
So "limit work history to the last 10 to 15 years" on your resume, Morris-Hughes says. "At the end of the resume, you can summarize the remaining years at a very high level."
Consider removing dates related to your education background from your resume, Ryan suggests. The year you earned your college degree may serve as an immediate – and unhelpful – signal of your age and prove to be a "limiting factor" to your job search, he says. Using a functional resume organized by skills rather than chronological jobs is another way to avoid using dates.
Shore Up Your Skills
If your line of work requires certifications, make sure yours are still valid, Howarth says. That might require taking a few classes to meet new standards or simply contacting the organizations that manage those credentials and asking that they be reactivated or renewed. Acquiring new certifications can also make older workers more competitive in the job market. Ryan recommends a project management professional certification, since it's relevant to many fields.
Joining and staying active in relevant professional associations is another good way to keep your skills current. Plus, Ryan says, these kinds of memberships "show linkage, activeness and value" to potential employers.
Don't Discuss Age
In the hiring process, age should remain a taboo topic. The person interviewing you shouldn't bring it up and neither should you.
If someone much younger than you is doing the hiring, it may be tempting to point out the age difference, but that's a big mistake that comes across as condescending, Inman says. Avoid phrases, no matter how playful, such as, "I've been working longer than you've been alive."
"People think they're assuming a parental frame to break the ice, but it's not helpful," Inman says.
Use a Positive Frame
Older workers should, however, discuss in positive terms what they have to offer potential employers thanks to their many years on the job.
"Speaking about the wealth of knowledge and experience they bring to the workforce is a way to highlight their maturity and age," Morris-Hughes says.
For example, in fields like sales and business development, older workers likely have many connections and wide networks, which can help companies boost revenue, Ryan says.
People who have been working for decades are often experts in workplace communication and team management, Inman says, and they often possess those hard-to-define qualities that younger colleagues haven't yet honed, such as "managerial courage" and "executive presence."
She recommends job candidates highlight these qualities during interviews with statements such as: "I'm a very experienced leader of people. I can identify talent successfully."
Get to the Point
Brevity is an important communication strategy during the job search process. Many of the older job seekers with whom Inman interacts tend to "oversell" and "overtalk."
"Quite frankly, the attention spans of millennials are not as long" as those of baby boomers, Inman says. "When you're giving an answer, make sure you've rehearsed it."
Develop a 30-second pitch that summarizes your experience, strengths and what you have to offer a potential employer, Morris-Hughes recommends.
"In the first 30 seconds or minute, I have formed a thought on a person," she explains. "Use those first 30 seconds carefully and wisely in a job interview."