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The Hypocrisy of Hiring Managers

The disconnect the author of a new report found between what hiring managers say about older workers and what they do

By Kerry Hannon

Here's the latest discouraging news for older job applicants: Hiring managers around the world have serious concerns about the abilities of people 45+ to learn new technologies and skills and to work with other generations, even though when they hire them, 87% of those employees perform as well, or better, than colleagues a decade younger.

A mid-career worker on a job interview with hiring managers. Next Avenue, jobs, career
Credit: Getty

The data comes from a recent troubling research report, "Meeting the World's Midcareer Moment," published by Generation, a global employment nonprofit.

Another of its findings, pointing to the hypocrisy of hiring managers: Even though they say older workers perform their jobs well, they make it very hard for members of underrepresented communities even to get hired. Those age 45+ applicants surveyed who self-identify as belonging to an underrepresented community needed to participate in 53% more interviews, on average, before they got a job offer.

The 'Generation' Report on Older Job Seekers

Perception vs. reality. The difference, for many older workers, is getting a job.

I just interviewed Generation's founder and CEO, Mona Mourshed — one of the report's researchers — to hear more about the findings and her insights about them.

"Often a job posting will say 'We're looking for fresh talent,' which often is code for young, right?"

Before I share highlights from our chat, below, a little more about the survey and the hiring landscape these days.

Generation surveyed 3,800 employed and unemployed people as well as 1,404 hiring managers to uncover global employment trends in seven countries — Brazil, India, Italy, Singapore, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

A crucial finding: proof of pervasive ageism. Employers view just 18% of age 45+ job seekers as having the right experience for their entry and intermediate level roles, according to the report. Only 15% are viewed as being a good "cultural fit" with their team.

One stunning statistic: Of those surveyed who were unemployed, 63% of 45+ job seekers have been out of work for more than a year vs. only 36% of job seekers 18 to 34.

The study also found that COVID-19 has harmed employment opportunities and worsened employment conditions for midcareer workers.

Here's what Mourshed — who previously led consultant McKinsey & Co.'s global education practice — says the report's findings mean for older job applicants and how she thinks employers need to change:

Kerry Hannon: What do you make of this hypocrisy of what hiring managers say about older workers applying for jobs and then what they experience when they're on board?

Mona Mourshed: Hiring managers essentially indicate that age forty-five-plus workers have no strengths relative to the eighteen-to-thirty-four age bracket and the thirty-five to forty-four age bracket.

Mona Mourshed speaking at an event. Next Avenue, hiring managers, career
Mona Mourshed, CEO of Generation, found big differences between what hiring managers said and did  |  Credit: Mona Mourshed

Hiring managers are more inclined to rate those thirty-five to forty-four as having the best experience, in terms of relevant education, salient prior work and the right technical skills for the job according to our report. But then when you ask, 'Well, what's the actual performance on the job of those who are mid-career and whom you've employed?' suddenly, eighty-seven percent are performing as well, if not better, than their younger peers and ninety percent are perceived as having stronger, or the same, retention potential as their younger peers.

What's behind this phenomenon?

There are probably a couple of things here.

One, the bulk of hiring managers themselves are under the age of forty-five. Of the hiring managers in our survey, thirty-nine percent were thirty-five to forty-four, while thirty-three percent were eighteen to thirty-four and twenty-eight percent were forty-five-plus, which could make them inclined to regard peers their age in general as more suitable and competent colleagues.

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What surprised you about these findings?

One of the most striking findings of this result is it's uniformly consistent across dramatically different countries.

We surveyed seven countries —  large, small, emerging markets, culturally diverse — but this phenomenon is a hundred percent universal. Same pattern, same magnitude, from industrial to service professions, from skilled trades to tech jobs.

You see the greatest amount of bias when it comes to tech professions, but it's just an order of magnitude.

Health care professions tend to be more open to older workers. The reason being because often when you're looking at and when you're involved in patient care and direct patient interaction, things like maturity and empathy are greatly valued. And there is a bias that those who are mid-career are more likely to provide that than those who are younger.

What could change all this?

When you give someone an opportunity, irrespective of their age, to demonstrate their dexterity and performing whatever are the relevant job tasks for a profession, that's the thing that breaks through — more so than anything.

Understanding the productivity and quality performance and retention performance of different age brackets is so important for any company to have a grasp on.

Yet often a job posting will say 'We're looking for fresh talent,' which often is code for young, right?

Or 'We're really looking for someone who's tech savvy.' And there again is a bias that those who are mid-career aren't as tech savvy as those who are younger. So, there are lots of biases at work.

It's so important that age is considered part of diversity, equity, and inclusion. AARP did a survey last year where they found that more than half of the global organizations didn't include age as part of their definition of DEI.

We must have an intergenerational workforce and we should have processes for recruiting and for retention that enable that.

What role does job training play?

The survey shows that training works: seventy-four percent of mid-careers who have successfully switched to a new career see the skills they learned in training as being instrumental in securing new jobs.

And three in four employers report training and certifications as providing the equivalent of relevant experience in a job when hiring.

By contrast, forty-five-plus individuals whose job prospects would most benefit from training — people who have a high school education or less and have a lower income and just enough income, or not enough, to meet their daily needs — are often especially hesitant to undertake training.

For them, training is seen as a luxury.

"Many more aged forty-five-plus have the potential to do the job if only they can get in through the door."

What we found was that as soon as you take those barriers away, so if you said, 'OK, well, what if there was a guaranteed interview at the end of the training?,' sixty percent of that group would say, 'Yes. Now I would sign up.'

Or if you said, 'Now we're going to provide a stipend to cover your living expenses during this period,' forty percent would sign up.

It's really important to understand why people do what they do. How we can support those who feel that training is a luxury they cannot afford?

What finding stood out the most about those who switched careers at forty-five-plus?

We sampled the population of people age forty-five-plus who switched careers in the last three years and continued to be employed at the time of the survey. What we found is that sixty-six percent of them had compromised in some way before taking that job offer.

Some compromised in terms of their role and seniority. They would have liked a higher role. They accepted something lower in terms of the compensation level, which often is linked to the role level as well.

Some compromised in terms of the sector. So they were, for example, looking to get into tech and couldn't, and so they went into a job in retail or whatever it might be.

But the point is that they powered through it, even though in the first few months they were asking themselves deep questions about, 'Should I be here?'

Did anything hopeful come out of this report for you?

The case for optimism: Many more aged forty-five-plus have the potential to do the job if only they can get in through the door.

Your biggest takeaway for employers and for older job seekers?

For employers, change the way you do hiring.. Look to see if someone has the capabilities and can demonstrate the capabilities of doing this job rather than just judging it from the CV.

For job seekers, if you're looking to switch careers, training matters a lot. Look for a training program that has a network of employers who have signed up to offer job interviews to those who are emerging from it.

It's your capacity to learn. It's your capacity to do something different. It's your curiosity. I mean, it's also, frankly, it's the fire in the belly. What are the key drivers of those who power through and are successful on the job? It's how hungry you are. If you're hungry for it, then you can, and will, be successful.

Photogtaph of Kerry Hannon
Kerry Hannon is the author of Great Pajama Jobs: Your Complete Guide to Working From Home. She has covered personal finance, retirement and careers for The New York Times, Forbes, Money, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today, among others. She is the author of more than a dozen books including Never Too Old to Get Rich: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Starting a Business Mid-Life, Money Confidence: Really Smart Financial Moves for Newly Single Women and What's Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond. Her website is kerryhannon.com. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon. Read More
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