‘Overqualified’: Is It Code for ‘Too Old’?

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“Would it be hard working for a boss younger than you?”

“Do you think our technology demands might be too much?”

“Why would you want this job, given all your experience?”

“People here work long hours; that probably doesn’t interest you.”

Such are the remarks interviewers make that, unwittingly or not, convey the message that an over-55 applicant is “too old” for a job.

Although age discrimination in hiring is illegal, proving age discrimination is difficult, labor experts agree. Applicants typically can’t tell if they miss out on jobs because they lack qualifications or because interviewers assume they’ll be unadaptable, unproductive, slow to learn, technologically handicapped, overly opinionated or too advanced in years to fit in with younger workers.

An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that many people over 50 are reporting difficulty in finding work, and they believe age is a big factor. Among the respondents, 55 percent of those 50 and older who have looked for work during the past five years characterized their search as “difficult,” while 43 percent thought employers were concerned about their age. About one-third were told they were “overqualified.”

Sometimes, being told you’re “overqualified” is another way of being told you’re too old for a job, said Laurie McCann, senior attorney at the AARP Foundation Litigation.

“If the interviewing employer has objective evidence that the person’s overqualification would be an issue, [the comment] is legitimate,” she said. “But if they’re just assuming the person wouldn’t be happy in the position because they perceive the person as being older, there have been some court cases that have said overqualified can be a code word for age discrimination and can be a reason for finding in the applicant’s favor.”

All in the Head?

Could those surveyed for the Associated Press poll have imagined that interviewers were worried about their age?

That’s difficult to tell, according to Joanna Lahey, associate professor of public policy at Texas A&M University.

“It is illegal to discriminate based on age, but it is very difficult to prove discrimination based on age,” she said. “Most employers know enough not to give explicit statements.”

Instead, experts said, interviewers tend to reveal their biases about older workers subtly.

“Most employers are well-intentioned and may be unaware of their own biases,” said Susan T. Fiske, Princeton University’s Eugene Higgins professor of psychology and co-author of a study that measured age discrimination. “Clues might include stereotypic assumptions, like questioning their abilities to pick up the latest technical skills or knowledge of social media.”

Other questions that might reveal age bias, experts said, include asking older applicants if: they’re comfortable working for a younger manager; how they’d feel in an office full of colleagues straight out of college; if they’re sure they want to work long hours; what year they graduated from college; and why they’d want to take a cut in pay or job prestige.

“A common concern about older workers is that they’re taking a job just to coast to retirement—that they’re not truly interested in the position,” McCann said. “Is it smoking-gun evidence of age discrimination? No. But it’s some indication that the interviewer is at least concerned about the person’s age.”

According to an AARP analysis of October 2013 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it took Americans 55 and older an average of 49.7 weeks after leaving one job to land another. For Americans under 55, the average was 33.9 weeks.

There’s little case law that provides guidance on age-discrimination practices, McCann said, in part because “we just don’t seem to view age discrimination as seriously or as wrong as we view other forms of discrimination.”

She added: “As the [AP] survey shows, you have a hunch, you think age was a factor, but in most cases you don’t have the evidence because you’re on the outside looking in. You know you didn’t get the second interview, but you don’t know who did. For most people, looking for a job is a physically and emotionally exhausting experience. Most people don’t want to bring an age-discrimination case; they want a job.”

Do Stereotypes Reflect Reality?

Are interviewers justified in making some assumptions about over-50 job applicants?

“Some stereotypes are true—for example, that older workers do, on average, have worse computer skills than today’s prime-aged workers,” Lahey said. “Some stereotypes have been shown in multiple studies to be untrue—for example, older workers do not have more frequent absences than younger workers. Some stereotypes we don’t really know about. As with all stereotypes, even if they are true on average that does not mean that they are true for an individual applicant.”

Fiske said research shows that there are no appreciable performance differences between older and younger employees.

“Older workers may sometimes lag younger ones in speed, but they make it up in experience and judgment,” she said.
McCann, who has a master’s degree in gerontology, said research demonstrates that “productivity doesn’t decline with age and as you age you become more like your younger self. If I was unproductive at 25, I’m probably not going to be very productive at 55.”

Older women can be at more of a disadvantage than older men, Fiske said.

“Older appearance is indeed held against women more than men,” she said.

McCann noted that anecdotally it seems true that “as a society, as men get gray hair and age, they become more dignified and look more experienced, [while] people put greater emphasis on women looking more youthful, so that a woman is perceived as looking older earlier than a man.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.