The age-old old-age question

Originally published in the Globe and Mail on April 14th, 2011. To go to the Globe and Mail website please click here

here’s an unspoken elephant in the room whenever Fred Peters is interviewed for a job.

Even though it is illegal for potential employers to ask his age, he knows it is on their minds. “I’ve found you have to deal with the age factor up front,” says Mr. Peters, who is 63 and until 2008 was chief financial officer of the now-defunct software maker Digital Fairway Corp. in Toronto.

“I get questions about whether, at this stage in my career, I am looking to take things easier,” he says. “And they ask lifestyle questions about my priorities: They ask how much I like to play golf and how much time I spend with my grandchildren. And they will ask things like: ‘We’ve got lots of young people here, how are you going to relate to them?’”

He’s come to expect the questions and comes equipped with answers that focus on the value of his years of experience. Having done contract work for the past 20 months, he’s now talking to a couple of potential employers and hopes that it will lead to a part-time position as a CFO. “I’ve found it’s important to be open and bring a lot of evidence of my skills and the fact that I expect to take an active role,” he says.

It’s an approach mature candidates should be taking but all too often don’t, career experts say. And because of that, they undermine their own job searches. Here’s their advice:

Face facts

“It is a reality that age is a factor, but it is not the primary factor behind whether you’re hired or not,” said Alan Kearns, head coach for career and leadership company CareerJoy in Toronto.

“For some people, ageism becomes an excuse for easing off their job search. Because of that, they carry that baggage that can take them into interviews with a self-imposed label on themselves: ‘I’m no longer a prime candidate,’” he said.

The reality is that you are going to have to work harder to get the kind of opportunities that you got 10 years ago. You are going to be competing against people who are where you were 10 years ago and are now looking to move up, Mr. Kearns said.

And at the same time, some employers may feel threatened by your experience or fear that you will take the job and be ready to leave if something better comes along. You need to ease those fears.

Keep on the edge

“The people who interview candidates for senior jobs tend to be in their 30s and 40s, and when they are interviewing people in their 50s, a question in the back of their minds is: ‘This person is older than I am; can he or she possibly be up to date?’” said Bernice Finley of executive search and career-transition coaching company Feldman Daxon Partners in Toronto, an affiliate of OI Partners Inc.