How to handle age gaps in the interviewing process

Generational diversity in any organisation encourages a broader range of talent, but it can often mean conflicting ideas and judgements impacted by unconscious bias based on generational stereotyping. Identifying and appreciating generational differences can transform the selection process from one of miscommunication to building up an effective age-diverse and productive team.

Mind the gap

One of the greatest challenges for let’s say more mature candidates, is when they are confronted by the age gaps in the people in the interview process, whether interviewers or hiring managers, who might be young enough to be their children. Or scarily, even younger for some. But as we head towards a five generation workforce,  this situation is going to become the norm rather than the exception. We all just have to get used to it.

Wide age gaps can trigger a number of reactions, not all of them centred around the great added value a candidate could make to the organisation, but a traumatic reminder to the interviewee, that their shelf life is about to expire.

Equally for the young interviewer when confronted with a track record of significant experience, even though some of it might be out of date, they can become easily intimidated and feel uncomfortable interviewing someone who is a replica of their Mum or Dad.

The situation then becomes difficult to navigate on both sides with a potential communication train wreck waiting to happen.

Beat the stereotypes

As a candidate you have to try and forget the interviewer’s age or level of experience and let all your own biases go. You will have many. Use your sophisticated social skills to create an immediate rapport. Don’t dumb your answers down and assume that young equals stupid. It doesn’t. Focus on creating a good impression and let them know you have the soft skills to reinforce your professional competence which will include: adaptability, energy, flexibility but above all a willingness to learn new techniques and skills.

As the interviewer your prejudices will also kick in about rapid onboarding, facility with technology, coping with change, mental agility, resistance to younger authority and time off for health reasons. But the average length of time a Gen Y employee spends in one job is 1-2 years, so the older employee feels rightly frustrated if they are viewed as a flight risk or unreliable.

Sarah has taken a year’s sabbatical from change management in the medical devices sector,  while she works out a career transition. In the meantime she would like to find some sort of interim work to cover her basic bills, freeing up her evenings to pursue an entrepreneurial venture. “I am in my mid 50s and no one believes me that I have valuable skills and am just happy to work even at a junior level. They simply focus on my age. I was then interviewed by a manager who recognised that I could add balance to his team. It was wonderful. He was literally 25 years younger than me”     

5 tips for mature candidates to fake it until you make it

Radiate energy:  In many geographies it is prohibited to ask the age of a candidate. What most recruiters do is enquire into the year you graduated and then do the maths. The knack is to look the part. Sit forward in your chair and look interested. There are few interview situations where women have advantages over men and this is one. Some skilfully applied make-up can do wonders to radiate an energetic and vigorous appearance. There is nothing more off-putting than a defeated demeanour which can happen at any age.

Buy just one.

Update your image : if your professional image is circa Joan Collins, shoulder pads and mullets, invest in an image consult. It will be worth it. Your body shape generally changes with age (except mine of course) as well as your skin tone.

Modernise your vocabulary:  Don’t use pop jargon to appear cool, #careeradvice, or drift into street vernacular  (Yo dude,…)  but at least have an understanding of terms and trends that are current. I was introduced to a new phrase last week “Let’s uber it”  meaning call a cab. I knew that….!

Understand technology: this is one area where older candidates genuinely fall behind. Getting up to speed on modern technology is critical, the platforms and applications. If you reject it all, do it from an informed position.  “I can’t be doing with that Facebook” will not be as well received as a detailed technical response on the limitations of the privacy settings. Have a strong online professional presence and a demonstrated wide network.  Make sure you can navigate your way around programmes that kids cut their teeth on in primary schools.

Know what you don’t know: This is where strategic questioning and attentive listening skills come in. Understanding that you have knowledge gaps to fill, without being intimidated by the situation will prove to be a real bonus. This will give you insight into the contribution you can make and  allow you to position yourself accordingly.

One cross generational gesture that is always appreciated is a post interview thank you.  But perhaps this time you might want to leave the embossed stationery in your desk drawer and just send an email.

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