Why Older Candidates get Overlooked

For the better part of my life I have had great success moving onto the next (often higher) role on my career path. I tell folks it has unfolded like a three act play – the problem is I don’t like the plot twist of the third act. But more on that later.

Nine months and five days ago the company eliminated my role. It was part of a larger downsizing (about 40% of staff ultimately including the founder) as the startup struggled to stay afloat. That’s fine. We did some great things and made some mistakes but in hindsight it’s hard to grow a technology company without new products. The “campground” was cleaner than I found it, so I sleep at night.

I figured that the transition would be pretty easy, hell, I have like 30+ years of experience and much of it very interesting and unique. I’ve been filling time with some pro bono and paid consulting, networking, and even more networking, applying for roles online, then hunting down hiring managers and emailing (and calling) them directly – repeatedly. But the results of my “job search” work product have been, shall we say, unfulfilling.

Older candidates get the shaft because their future career narratives look uncertain. This is primarily because unlike younger candidates who have only seen the “next often higher” path, older candidates have made sacrifices and decisions that ended the always upward narrative.

There are all kinds of reason the path is crooked. You chose to limit your search to your current town, you stayed at home for a while to raise the kids, you listened to your experience/heart and took an unpopular stand on a controversial issue, you pulled back to care for someone that’s sick in your life, you changed careers, you took a chance, you followed your passion into a role with less title and pay, or maybe you just made a mistake. The reason doesn’t matter, but now your career narrative is flawed; it is no longer always mo’ better on the chart of Prestige.

An imperfect candidate is often the most perfect next hire. When companies are screening hundreds if not thousands of candidates, they like tight and predictable narratives. But life is not like that. Courage, resiliency, character, life-lessons, innovation, and often genius are born out of hardship – making a tough call and living with the consequences. Older candidates have life experiences, scuff marks, ups and downs, perspective, and dents. But they’ve lived through it – and are a better hire because of it.

Too often I get the sense the hiring process is more to do with herding than recruiting. I don’t blame anyone, but from this side, especially with larger companies, it feels like the reliance on software and meticulously curated search fields, misses the diamonds hardened by age for the smoother stones of confimists.

My career first act followed the mo’ better chart – up and to the right. Started in technical support, wrote code, got into marketing, did sales, led product marketing and marketing teams, worked at Apple, Intel, startups, ran two business lines from Europe and then reached the first hill top as the inaugural executive director of the Bluetooth trade group. After that ran its course I bounced around a bit then eventually found a calling in nonprofit and helped launch Matt Damon’s Water.org distinguishing our team for its innovation, scrappiness, and success. What an exciting and invigorating second act!

Now I need to write my third and final career act. Even though I have scuff marks and dents I also have perspective and more experience DOING things than most candidates aspire to have over their entire career. Most of the time I have learned from my mistakes and am always ready to share my successes with others. There’s a few more fights left in me so I want to find work with meaning and purpose. I just hope I don’t get overlooked.