Confronting Ageism in the Job Search: How to Shine in the Job Interview When You Are Over 40

by Sharon Elber | July 2, 2017

Older Worker

Most seasoned headhunters and career specialists are well aware of the sad reality that ageism is often a significant barrier in the hiring process. If you are over 40 and in the market for a new job, you may already know the added difficulties of the job search that can come with age.

Age discrimination is illegal. However, it is very difficult to prove since a myriad of reasons can always be found to justify selecting another candidate. Most older people confronted with ageism in the job search are looking for practical strategies to shine as a job candidate.

This guide is a practical run down of some top techniques to use during a job interview to improve your chances of being seen by interviewers as the next great member of the team.

1. Confronting Implicit Bias in the Interview

Often age discrimination operates through Implicit Bias. Implicit Bias is a concept that refers to beliefs about certain groups of people that inform decision making. These ideas are not generally consciously held. Rather, they are a form of internalized social bias learned from our cultural world.

It is possible to confront Implicit Bias, and diminish its power over decision-making. First, by understanding the negative social stories about age that might be operating in the job interview; then, by offering alternative narratives.

Which social stories about age are relevant will vary depending on your line of work, the specific job you are applying for, and the individual interviewers. The following examples are not an exhaustive list, but hopefully they will get you thinking about what these stories may look like, and how to proactively confront them with your own narratives during the interview.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

This story about older people is unfair but it can be a background assumption that informs a hiring decision. Don’t let this be the story that interviewers take away about you.

Make sure that during the interview you recount some recent experiences where you adapted to changes at work, learned new skills, or updated your education or technical training. Counter this story with evidence even if no one explicitly mentions this ageist fable.

Know-it-all.

Sometimes, in an effort to over compensate for perceived ageism, older applicants can focus on their experience to the point of coming off as a know-it-all.

Make sure that you show that you are still teachable by letting the interviewers know that you appreciate learning from others and that you recognize that everyone comes to the table with their own strengths.

Resistance to feedback/authority or Working with Mom/Dad.

This story is likely to be active as a background assumption if the people interviewing you are significantly younger.

If this is the case, make sure you make it clear that you understand that the workplace functions best when people work within the established chain of command. If you have a related experience of working well with someone significantly younger than you, having it ready to trot out in an interview is a good idea.

People over 30 are technophobes with outdated skills.

There is a widespread belief in our culture that because of rapid shifts in technology, there is a generation gap in technology skillsets. While there may be something to this on the larger demographics of the population, you have probably been keeping up with the technology most relevant to your work.

Be sure to pepper your job interview with examples of how you have recently used the latest technology, have participated in ongoing technology training, and concrete examples that demonstrate your familiarity with technology.

You are overqualified for this job. You will leave the first chance you get, or worse, try to take my job.

This stereotype is not only biased, it is false. Younger people are more likely to seek other opportunities to advance their career. It may come off as defensive to come right out and say that, though.

You can make sure to highlight some reasons why the job you are applying for is a good fit for where you are in your life, and that you will be satisfied with the work, even if it is less challenging than previous work you have done.

2. Frame Your Age as an Asset

Another way to confront Implicit Bias about age is to make sure to persistently seek opportunities to frame your age and experience as an asset to the organization. This can be tricky because sometimes you can inadvertently trigger some of the negative stories about age mentioned in the section above.

In particular the “Know-it-all” and “Mom/Dad” social scripts can be triggered if you are not careful in lauding your accomplishments. It all comes down to framing.

My years of experience, and the many crisis I have faced in this work during that time, have given me excellent judgement and sound decision making skills.

The one thing youth can never buy is sound judgement. This is definitely a part of your work history that you want to convey, preferably with concrete examples of experience you have had showing that you have what it takes to weather the storm of trying times in the workplace.

You want to be sure not to trigger the “Mom/Dad” script here…so include an example that also shows you working as a member of the team to get through some work-related dilemma.

I have been around the block, therefore I know what I love about this work, and this position is just what I am looking for.

This story addresses your age and experience as a positive. It can highlight that you are not looking to jump ship the minute another opportunity comes along.

It also highlights the riskiness of hiring someone younger, which works to your advantage. The example here is deliberately vague, and you would want to tailor it more to the specifics of the job you are applying for.

3. Think Outside the Box

If you are over 50, or nearing retirement, and having trouble landing jobs that you know you are qualified for, it may be time to think outside the box. Your skills may translate into one of the following sectors that offer new opportunities and the potential to find work environments less hostile to older workers.

Consulting: If your work translates to potentially consulting corporate clients or small businesses, then it may be worth considering becoming your own boss, or finding a small consulting business you can partner with. This puts you in the driver’s seat and leverages your experience as a great asset in a way that will not feel threatening to clients.

Start-ups and non-profits: Older employees and headhunters have confirmed that these two job sectors seem to have less ageism operating in the hiring process. Of course, this is not the case across the board. However, it is still worth expanding your search to include these sectors of the market.

Gig economy: There are many freelancing options now available to workers that are able to sacrifice the security and benefits of a full-time position. If you have health benefits through a spouse, or other means, then it may be worth investigating freelance work. Make sure to do some research about the reputable websites offering services to connect freelancers and potential clients before jumping into this growing sector of the economy.

4. Pain Interviewing

Pain interviewing is a relatively new technique sometimes recommended for highly competitive jobs where demonstrating an aggressive attitude will not be perceived as a liability. It is a bit of a risky technique, and it is not appropriate for all kinds of jobs. (Don’t try Pain Interviewing to get a job at a day school!)

Pain Interviewing is a process where the interviewee gains control of the interview and turns the discussion towards the specific problems the organization is trying to solve with the hire, then demonstrating they are exactly the person for the job by offering real and concrete solutions.

The advantages of Pain Interviewing for older candidates is that it can work to position you as precisely right for the job because your experience and problem-solving skills, likely honed through years of experience, are directly the focus of the conversation.

A complete review of the technique of Pain Interviewing is outside the scope of this article. Do some additional research before trying this strategy.

5. Networking in Person

One of the surest ways to be seen without bias is to get in the door through the recommendation of an acquaintance or friend. Additionally, if you have been active in your community, chances are you may well have deeper and longer social connections than some of your younger colleagues. Use this to your advantage.


Review: We want to provide you with practical strategies to confront ageism during your next job search. Despite being illegal, if you are over 40, it is likely that you will be faced with a longer search than younger folks in many job sectors due to age discrimination.

Try to avoid overcompensating or being defensive as they are likely to trigger negative social stories about older individuals. Keep the conversation focused on what you bring to the table without coming off as a “know-it-all.”

Try to stay positive during your search and remember that confronting age bias is something to weave into your interview by being strategic and practicing ahead of time the kinds of stories that work against ageist stereotypes.

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