How to Write an Age-Defying Resume
Ageism puts older jobseekers at a disadvantage, but they can greatly improve their chances by talking up the advantages they offer to prospective employers
My book club meeting was finishing up when one of the women approached to ask me a favor.
"Will you take a look at my resume?" she asked.
I'm an editor by profession and I get that request a lot.
"I've sent dozens of applications in and I'm getting nothing but silence, or automated rejections," she said. "I don't know why this is happening."
And then she dropped her voice down a notch.
"Do you think it's my age?"
Maybe. But the good news is, there's an editorial fix for that.
Ageism Starts at Resume Screening
Ageism is nothing new. Every generation thinks the ones that came before them are dimwitted and taking up space. And that's never been more vivid than in today's job market. Everything from the skill sets to the application process is skewed to younger workers. If you're like me and you started office life on an IBM Selectric, you know the odds are not in your favor.
If you're like me and you started office life on an IBM Selectric, you know the odds are not in your favor.
Studies show it's a current problem. A study published earlier this year found age discrimination in hiring starts earlier than you'd think — around age 40 — and rises from there. Another showed anti-discrimination legislation does little to protect older workers since discrimination often takes place at the resume screening level. Hiring managers, when given the cloak of anonymity, say they engage in age bias all the time.
I have seen age bias in action myself. The year I turned 50, I interviewed for a ghostwriting gig. The conference call interview went well, I thought, until we got to the last question.
"What is your age?" asked the potential author. Believe me, I knew 50 was not the right answer. They went with someone else.
Your first reader is likely to be software and if you don't clear this hurdle, human eyes may never see your resume.
But many of my peers say they can't even get to the interview. If you've been applying like a maniac and you're not getting anywhere, consider a resume edit — one that defies your age.
Tips to Punch Up a Resume
Use keywords. Your first reader is likely to be software and if you don't clear this hurdle, human eyes may never see your resume. Describe what you can do using keywords for the position. Read the job posting and the social media of those who already work in the company, in the department, in the function. There you will find your vocabulary of keywords. Embrace them.
Employ action verbs. Avoid passive language. You are already considered less active than your younger competition, so don't underscore that by using passive language. Instead, inject energy into your skills description. If you have years (decades?) in the work world, you can do things: Organize, create, lead, sell, market, develop, train, support, design.
Talk yourself up. I once saw an interview with Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook in which she discussed the different ways men and women communicate. When a project was a success, she'd often ask the leader why. Women praised their teams, she said. Men responded: Because I'm awesome!
Don't Sell Yourself Short
No matter who you are or what your age or stage, you need to go into a job search with what my kids call White Male Energy. Don't hedge or explain or (even worse) apologize. You're applying for the job because you're awesome and they'd be lucky to have you. That's your story, stick to it.
Leverage your experience. One edge you have over the youngsters is that it's more likely you've done something story-worthy. You've had a lot more time to try. Don't skip the opportunity to be more interesting than some early-career kid.
One professional I know always keeps her very first job — she started an ironing business in college — on her resume. Doesn't matter that it was forever ago. It highlights her ambitious personality.
I say leaving dates off your resume is a tell. No young person does it.
I was at a Zoom team meeting recently in which we all went around the Brady Bunch grid and said one fun fact about ourselves. I heard the young folks say they'd hiked in Tibet or followed Phish or been an extra in a movie.
When my turn came, I said: "I've written 30 books and none of them have my name on the cover." It took a minute of whoas! and damns! before the leader got control of the meeting again. Leveraged properly, age can be interesting.
Accept your age. At the end of your resume — the very end, after you've wowed them with your skills and your keywords and your awesomeness — put your education and your graduation dates.
I'm in the minority on this point. Many careers coaches advise leaving that info off. But I say leaving dates off your resume is a tell. No young person does it. Instead, revamp your education section by ensuring the age-old college graduation date is not your most recent entry. Get an advanced degree. Get a certificate. Take classes in your field.
Many hiring managers fear older workers will be behind on their skills and set in their ways. Let your education section show that's not true.
Know Why You're Valuable
Whatever you do, don't reject yourself — you still have value. A study by the Ohio Department of Aging finds workers over 50 are more reliable than their younger counterparts. They often come to a job with a wide range of industry contacts. They maintain better focus on the job, make fewer mistakes and sometimes, even perform magic.
I have a friend who gained celebrity around her office by being able to read cursive — and make sense of the "scribbles" coming from the company's board chair.
They still need us. They just don't realize it yet.