CV ageism: Is it possible to be the ‘wrong’ age for a job?

Open Plots in Pharma City

Whether conscious or unconscious, age-related biases are baked into the recruiting process. Should employees be evasive in order to overcome the biases of recruiters?

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Even in the best of circumstances, applying for jobs is a miserable experience. But what if you knew that simply revealing your age on your CV would result in your application being rejected?

For many people, this is the reality. Because of age discrimination, people over the age of 50 are more than twice as likely as other workers to be out of work for two years or longer if they lose their current job. According to one study, a 50-year-old worker is up to three times less likely to be interviewed than a 28-year-old applicant. “When you’re in your 40s and 50s, bringing up your age is like dropping an F-bomb,” says CJ*, 55, who lost his corporate marketing job 20 months ago and is still looking. 

Not only do older job seekers face automatic rejection; young people can also be passed over for roles due to their age. Although this type of’reverse’ ageism is much less studied, studies show that younger workers can be viewed as undesirable employees, which can result in them not being hired.

“You can imagine how an assumption like that could get into the recruitment process when you have baby boomers who think millennials are lazy and entitled,” says social scientist Stéphane Francioli of New York University’s Stern School of Business, who recently co-authored a study on ‘Youngism’ with Professor Michael North. 

It is difficult to address the issue of age-related assumptions in the recruitment process. Some employees have devised their own solution; 44% of over-45s admit to changing their age on their CV. Other strategies include detailing only the most recent employment experiences (for older workers) or removing age-related information such as graduation dates (for both younger and older workers) to pass initial screening processes.

But does removing age-related information from résumés actually help younger and older workers find work?

A permitted prejudice? 

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There is no requirement to include your age or age-related indicators on your CV when applying for a job. Even if you do, there are laws that prohibit employers from openly discriminating against employees based on their age. However, subconscious biases about candidate ages are likely to kick in the moment your CV reaches a recruiter’s desk.

Ageism is a bias that is frequently overlooked in this landscape of inequality – Martin, Ashley

Hiring managers frequently do not have time to thoroughly read every application they receive, so they must make assumptions based on minor details that stand out. At some point, the hiring managers are looking for reasons to say no, and age is one of them – whether consciously or unconsciously.

“You’re going to rely on stereotypes to make a first selection, which is understandable when you have 200 applications for a single position,” says Jelle Lössbroek, a researcher at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who studies workplace ageism. “However, it is during this stage that ageism has the most sway.” 

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Whether it’s assuming that older employees will take more sick days (they don’t) or that younger applicants are job hoppers (they aren’t), these clichés don’t have to be true in order to have an impact. “If that’s what managers think, that’s what they’ll consider when looking at job candidates,” Lössbroek says.

Part of the problem is that many people do not consider ageism to be a problem. According to a 2021 research paper from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, ageism appears to be the only acceptable prejudice. “In this landscape of inequality, ageism is frequently a bias that isn’t even discussed,” says lead author Professor Ashley Martin. Indeed, her research indicates that those who support and advocate for equality are more likely to be prejudiced against older people. 

“Unlike race and gender, we frequently believe that older people have already had their successes and opportunities.” “The natural order of things dictates that they step down so that younger people can step up,” Martin says. “And this frequently legitimises age bias, allowing people to feel fairly comfortable excluding older workers from the workforce.”

This is especially evident among hiring managers. “There’s less of a sense that you’re doing something wrong when you select based on age,” Lössbroek says. “Many managers would feel bad if they admitted to selecting based on skin colour, but with age, too many managers would say it’s nothing personal, it just works better this way.”

Lössbroek ended a survey on age discrimination in hiring in one of his research projects by asking, ‘What do you think this study was about?’ One-third of those polled correctly identified ageism as the survey’s focus. Lössbroek and his colleagues then reviewed the responses of the participants, assuming that they would have toned down their ageism as a result – but this was not entirely the case. “Yes, they discriminated less than the other groups,” Lössbroek says. “However, they still discriminated heavily.” It’s as if there’s nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to ageism. 

Mitigating measures 

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If age-related judgments are unavoidable, is there anything candidates can realistically do to avoid being prejudiced? Even if you remove your date of birth from your CV, there are plenty of other age-related indicators in your list of previous jobs, skills, and qualifications. Some recruiters advise leaving out key dates and only listing your most recent 15 years of experience, but is this a viable option?

“The more prominent your age appears on your CV, the more likely the person reading it will focus on your age,” explains Lössbroek, adding that the more difficult it is to find your age, the less likely your résumé will be thrown out before being properly read. “I believe there is some value in not explicitly displaying the age, but it does not solve everything.”