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Too Young? Too Old? Turn Stereotypes into Career Strengths

Monday, July 6, 2015
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We’ve all heard the prevailing wisdom about being sure to start and end well your life’s many and varied endeavors. This advice certainly applies to our careers—get off on the right foot, and finish with a bang. 

But accomplishing these ends is not always straightforward, particularly because age-related stereotypes can impede our efforts. Despite advances in employer sensitivity and awareness, sometimes it’s just plain difficult (or at least daunting) for job seekers to overcome naturally embedded beliefs about two types of job seekers: those who are either “too young and inexperienced” or “too old and unable to fully commit and keep up.” 

Too Young and Inexperienced

Everybody has to start somewhere, and most make incremental strides as their career progresses. Yet, years of experience often trump natural potential and horsepower. How do you get around this? 

In my mind, it’s all about packaging the message. For the young, exuberant, relatively inexperienced job seeker, feature your curiosity, tenacity, objectivity, and fervent desire to learn and contribute. In fact, it’s both accurate and important to stress how the boundless energy and passion you bring to an organization could be a catalyst for innovation and fresh thinking—not to mention the successful pursuit of big ideas. What’s more, you bring with you the value of being able to see the business through an unclouded lens.

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It’s also important to remind potential employers the impact you may have on the rest of the organization. Your fresh face will likely enable someone to take you under their wing and improve their own communications and mentoring skills. Indeed, the organization should consider your employment as a personal leadership development opportunity in its most primary form. Hiring you also speaks volumes to entrenched employees about how accepting and supportive the organization is in bringing in raw, high-capacity talent.

Too Old and Unable to Fully Commit and Keep Up

Overcoming this stereotype begins with your own self-beliefs. If you allow this type of thinking to become your reality, then it’s likely that limited, less challenging opportunities will come your way. Instead, embrace the idea that your wealth of experience—and the wisdom you’ve earned—are significant assets that immeasurably enrich your value proposition. 

More importantly, don’t wait for this issue to cloud your conversations with potential employers. Rather, explicitly feature your experience and describe how valuable it makes you, as well as how it empowers you to be discerning and decisive. If you try to dance with the 600-pound gorilla in the room, you’ll most likely get your feet crushed. So take the lead, acknowledge the gorilla, pick your own dance tune, and show employers you are an expert at the steps since you’ve learned from your vast experience.

As to your ability to commit and stay the course, let people know that you are ready to embrace a new challenge and stick with it for as long as you need to make a significant impact. (And make sure you actually feel this way.) If you consider the role to be the “capstone” of your career, make it clear that you are willing to go “all-in” to ensure your legacy as someone who applied your perspective and know-how in such a profound manner that you helped to make a real, lasting difference. Finally, you need to do whatever you can to take care of yourself—physically, mentally, and emotionally—to be able to fulfill to the commitments you make. That’s what I call a win-win outcome. 

To be sure, stereotypes like “too young” or “too old” exist, but our actions can shape whether they have an impact on our careers. Don’t allow yourself to be the target of labels, which can actually be strengths that you should feature. In fact, some of these stereotypical attributes may be the very professional and personal assets that potential employers will come to value.

About the Author

Wayne Luke is managing partner of the not-for-profit practice of the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. With more than two decades of executive search and leadership development experience, he has successfully partnered with a wide variety of world class, high impact organizations—both in the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors, helping to drive their efforts to identify and hire game-changing, senior leaders. He is based in Witt/Kieffer’s Atlanta office.

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