“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?”—the Beatles, “When I’m 64”

The "Other": Seen in a mirror, or through a window?

Projection and Identification/Image: Michael Moffa

You are 65, but look 40. The other applicant waiting in the reception area is 40, but looks 65. Which of you is likely to get the job, given that you suspect the interviewer is a closet “ageist”, that he/she knows your and the other applicant’s age, and given that the playing field is otherwise level, e.g., your wealth of experience offsets the other applicant’s assumed greater malleability? [Yes. I know that age discrimination and even asking about it is illegal in many jurisdictions, but then so is jaywalking.]

Do Ask, Do Tell

In some countries, the answer could be “neither of you”, e.g., Japan, where for some jobs, e.g., university teaching, a profession generally tenured at the top age and experience range, the age cut-off for a new applicant can be as young as 35—I know, because I saw such postings in Japan. Possible explanations: to avoid paying a more senior professor’s salary or to maintain rank-age synchrony, if, for example, to avoid any awkwardness should the chairman be younger than the applicant.

As for the legality of asking, most Japanese resumes I saw before I left in 2000 had a box for age.  [Japan has been notorious for dubious, shocking and—in the West—illegal practices. A very close friend of mine, perhaps the most gifted English-speaker I ever met among the Japanese and a graduate of Cambridge University, was asked by a male interviewer at one of Japan Inc’s biggest global corporations whether there would be any problems at work if they became lovers. No apology, until she threatened to sue.  Also, I once read that applicants in blazing hot summertime interviews, invited to remove their business blazers to stay cool were summarily rejected for lacking self-control and a willingness to maintain a professional appearance at all costs.]

Projection and Identification: Napoleon’s Dating Options

In other countries, the selection of one of the two candidates may, at least in part, depend not only upon whether the interviewer is more sensitive to chronological age than to youthful appearance, but also upon whether he or she favors what psychologists call “projection”, or—on the other hand—“identification”, as his or her cognitive style or as a psychological defense mechanism in such situations. A “projective” personality or strategy is exemplified by a short man with a “Napoleon complex” who chooses an even shorter wife: “I’m not short; she is.” The “identifying” personality/strategy can be illustrated by another short man who chooses a much taller wife, in effect saying, “I’m not short; we are tall.” The former “projects” his “shortcoming” onto his wife; the latter surmounts it by seeking shelter in her taller shadow—“me” becomes “we”, which makes me feel a lot better about me.

[Historical note: The popular belief that Napoleon was shorter than the average Frenchman in his time may have been based on a failure to distinguish the French and British inches, which were not equivalent during his rule—the British unit being shorter. As a result, a French height of 5’2” was equal to 5’7” in British inches. The problem is the uncertainty surrounding the question as to which units his reported height of 5’2” was measured in. His affectionate nickname, “Little Corporal”, may have been a reflection of the huge size of his body guards or his initially modest military rank.]

What If You Are Both Older? Seen in the Mirror, or Through the Window?

If the interviewer is approximately the same age as you, the much older of the two applicants, likely scenarios include this one: If he/she is insecure about his or her own age and is projective, he or she may unconsciously think, “I’m not too old, the applicant is.” Accordingly, you may be rejected on the basis of your chronological age. You are seen through a dark window, beyond the pale.

On the other hand, if the age-peer interviewer is impressed with your youthful appearance despite your age, he/she may identify with you and be less likely to reject you. The interviewer sees you as his reflection in a Snow White magic mirror.

If the same interviewer tends to negatively identify with his age-peers, the line of reasoning may be “I don’t like anyone my age; therefore I won’t hire this applicant.” Hence, again, you are not hired.

You will also be at risk of being passed over if the recruiter denies such negative feelings about being identified with you, but, instead projects them onto colleagues (who may or may not share his negative attitude about age). Then rejecting you will be rationalized on the basis of the (real, imagined or invented) biases of the colleagues, not on his or hers.

The “Bar-Code Syndrome”

However psychologically convoluted this may sound, it is probably extraordinarily common: The interviewer consciously or unconsciously thinks, “I don’t want to be lumped together with THAT kind of person”, e.g., with you, the older applicant, just as one guy with a bad bald-pate comb-over, which the Japanese colorfully call “bar code”, doesn’t want to be seated next to another bar-coded guest at a wedding reception, or in the outer office of the interview venue, lest he attract unwanted attention and comparisons.

What makes this projection–as well as what is called “gestalt closure”, a kind of connecting two gleaming dots that are close enough to be connected in the mind—is that he is assuming not only that he will become more conspicuous, but also that those who notice will negatively notice, on the projected presumption that they share his negative attitude and social/professional expectations regarding bar-coded men.

The interviewer reluctantly identifies with you, his/her chronologically equally aged “twin”, and then projects onto his colleagues, supervisor, etc., the inclination to negatively equate and evaluate him/her and you. Again, you probably don’t get the job.

Of course, if you are the one projecting your reluctant, negative identification with other applicants your age—including any truly decrepit ones—onto the interviewer, you may be wrong about that and get the job, despite your fears.

What If You Are the Younger Candidate?

Now, suppose you are the younger applicant who looks as wizened as the average 65-year-old used to look in the old days, before “today’s 60 is yesterday’s 40” became a  modern mantra and a fact of today’s extended and enhanced life spans. In this case, the older interviewer, if projective, may hire you because he or she is not the one who looks old for his/her age—you are! Having you around may very well make him/her feel better about being over 60.

The possible scenarios involving a much younger recruiter are left as an exercise for the motivated reader. However, this much said, is there anything an applicant can do either to determine which type the interviewer is or which strategy the recruiter is following, viz., projective/identifying, or to influence the recruiter’s age-related perceptions and decision making?

If the recruiter looks at you and says “we” a lot, it will be a very good sign….

…unless, like Napoleon, she’s French.



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