The Age-Bomb: Screening Out the Fallout

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Age Bomb of Ageism and Age Discrimination

Age-Bomb/Image: Michael Moffa

What is it that makes the hiring issue of age an issue at all, an “Age-Bomb” with a time fuse and propensity to detonate at some point, even if only in the minds—rather than in the actual screening—of older job hunters, especially when officially and legally it is not supposed to exist at all? Why, like a Cold War H-bomb, does the Age-Bomb make so many older job applicants instinctively duck and not a few HR managers diplomatically cover?

Equally interesting is the question of why, when the law of the land, intergenerational family ties and the innate American sense of justice and fair play make ageism unseemly and risky, the fear and fact of age discrimination sits like a menacing shadow goblin on the shoulder of many an older interviewee before, during and after the interviews he or she manages to get.

An Age-Bomb Victim’s Tale

Consider the premises and implications of the following Age-Bomb story, a recent addition to the buzz-generating Down But Not Out archive of  job-hunter tales of misery and hope: “I kept abreast of all the current thinking on resumes and job searches, and edited my resume to take out all hints of age (I was 54-56 during my job search). Though my resume talked about a lot of varied experience, it had no dates other than my last 10 years of employment. That created a funny situation–I’m in the lobby of a major cell phone manufacturer, waiting for the hiring manager to come retrieve me for an interview. She came out, I was the only one in the lobby. I have a bit (okay, a lot) of gray hair. I look my age. She expected someone in his 30’s, I guess. She tentatively called out my name and when I stood up, she was literally dumbfounded and speechless. To her credit she did at least continue on with the interview, and the rejection came via email weeks later. And that was when I started coloring my hair.”

It’s the Correlates, Not the Age

However intense such anxiety about the Age-Bomb may be, It seems that on both sides of the interview screen it is misplaced: The real anxiety should not be about advancing age per se, but about its correlates—real and imagined, weakly or strongly correlated, e.g., unfamiliarity with the latest developments in the field; shorter future employment life span; exacerbation of youth unemployment; increased risk of medical issues and costs; odds of cognitive decline; a less photogenic, seductive or “pleasing” appearance or old-dog-old-tricks task rigidity.

The wrongly imagined correlates of age need to be addressed, because however illegitimate, erroneous and groundless believing they are real may be, they can exert a very real influence in the minds of both the applicant and the recruiter. Moreover, and importantly, the undesirable presumed correlates should be screened for and out, irrespective of the age of the applicant.

Hence, one reason for the persistent fear of the Age-Bomb is this confusion of age with its undesirable correlates.

Why Not an Equally Positive Age Edge?

Interestingly, there seems to be no older-applicant cockiness or completely offsetting advantage due to the positive (desirable and in direct variation) correlates of age, such as age-peer appeal to the increasing numbers of older customers and clients, an older worker’s likely traditional regard for “old school” customer service manners and polite language, e.g., “you’re welcome”, instead of “no problem” or “no worries”; fewer conflicting obligations and distractions, such as the kids’ little league baseball and Facebook addictions; the possession of tested, honed and proven skills; potential to serve as seasoned mentors and advisers or the reduced likelihood of quitting for a better offer.

Older Means More Motivated?

Notable among these positive correlations is the factor of motivation: Older workers are among the most motivated in the workplace, according to a December 2005 study done by consulting firm Towers Perrin for AARP. In fact, employees over 50 were more motivated to exceed job expectations than younger workers. Highly motivated employees were described as ‘extremely likely’ to satisfy customers, affect product quality and control costs. According to the study, workers 55 and older had an average ‘motivation score’ of 78.4, compared to 71.2 for those 18 to 29. (The average for all ages was 74.8.)” (“Benefits of Hiring Seniors, Harvey Meyer)

To the extent that any of the correlations—favorable or unfavorable—are weak, or in the individual instance, non-existent, e.g., in the case of the 60-year-old salesman who looks, thinks, feels, works and works out like 40, it becomes even clearer that the issue is not age per se. One question that remains to be addressed is why the perceived negatives of age outweigh the positives of the kind itemized above.

How to Be Discriminating without Being Discriminatory

Screening criteria should fundamentally identify attributes such as vitality, energy, health and teachability as the truly germane ones, irrespective of age—screening criteria that are legitimate insofar as failure to meet a criterion excludes the unqualified of all ages, without discrimination on a purely age-calibrated basis.  Rejections and exclusions based on a lack of energy,  up-to-date skills and teachability—independent of any consideration of age—can be smart as well as fair.

To repeat: Screen the presumed correlates of age, not age itself. This is both fair and feasible to the extent that, in an analogous way, “statistical profiling” at airport security checks, however strongly or weakly correlated with race or religion, can be conceptually and operationally legitimate and distinct from out-and-out racial or religious profiling.

This can be tricky, e.g., the attempt to formulate an age-independent hiring criterion ambiguously couched in terms of “attractiveness” (Physical? Overall?).  This means that while many ostensible correlates of age can be screened for in ways that are independent of age as the key variable, some may not—in particular, being attractive or an “attractive candidate” as a real or imagined correlate of certain ages.

Ageist Oxymoron?

In the U.S. and Canada, “among other things, young” seems, for some, to have become a definitional prerequisite for being a “very attractive” person and applicant. The consequence is that even if age and ageism are not the obvious and intended barrier, the definitional correlate, “very attractive candidate” is a subtler one, which makes for a kind of de facto, implied ageism, if not de jure, explicit discrimination.

Given this definitional bias or presumed and increasingly challenged inverse correlation between age and (physical) attractiveness, “a very attractive 60-year-old candidate” will sound like an oxymoron, at least prior to a face-to-face interview, if not during it.

Confucian Respect for Your Unemployable Elders

Elsewhere, “respect for elders” enshrined in some traditional cultures, like that of Confucianist China, does not these days, as one might have hoped, automatically translate into hiring of them—indeed, it may serve as a rationale for not hiring older workers at all:  China has a mandatory retirement age of 55 for women and 60 for men (at least in government jobs) and is resisting raising those ages, even though the government is experiencing pressure on pension funds. Conceivably, given the cultural backdrop of millennia of Confucianist thinking, it could be argued that it is out of profound “respect” for the elderly and therefore for older workers that retirement is compulsory—to assure that they do not push themselves too hard or too long and that, instead, they enjoy the well-deserved rewards of retirement, at least in the form of unlimited free time.

More cynically and realistically, it can also be argued that raising the retirement age in China will exacerbate the already fierce competition among China’s many unemployed—including those in the hard-hit manufacturing and export sectors crushed by the 2008 recession and those in the ever-expanding university and college graduate pool (a three- or four-year holding tank for the young who would otherwise have been worryingly unemployed immediately after high school graduation).

Whatever the correct analysis may be, it is clear that despite having an apparently far less ageist view of older people, the Chinese are, paradoxically, less likely than you are to hire anyone over 60 for a government or corporate job.

Divide-and-Conquer Generational Marketing

One of the main reasons for Age-Bomb jitters in the office and ageism in the streets is the relentless application of a key modern marketing principle that is at odds with our legal principles, any surviving extended family values and traditional moral principles: “generational marketing”—the pandering to and isolation of specific generations or narrower age groups as exclusionary target markets divided into and conquered with the help of artificial, invidious and divisive demographic age-based categories such as “pre-teen”, “tween”, “teen” and “post-Bieber” (a term for everyone else, as far as the first three are concerned). To comprehend the cultural artificiality of these categories, you need only contemplate the demanding trades apprenticeships of 10-year-olds and ages of marriage in the Third World and throughout history.

The result here at home is fabricated and exploitable tastes, differences, priorities, sense of superiority, barriers and prejudices—all designed to foist an equally faux generational identity based on mass-media, mass-marketed product and service age-differentiation onto a self-absorbed, exclusionary and cultish age-cohort.

The (Micro)Soft Approach to the Battle of the Generations

Epitomizing this divisive marketing ploy was a TV commercial aired a few years back, by Microsoft, as I recall, in which a curious grandfather, noticing his teen grandson and friends surfing soccer sites, waxes sentimental while proudly recalling his place on a championship soccer (or was it rugby, Grandma?) team two generations earlier. Any expectation that an intergenerational cross-age moment of bonding was at hand was dashed by the grandson’s and friends’ maliciously gloating over their instantaneous discovery that Grandpa was nowhere to be found in Grandpa’s purported team sepia photo discovered in a quick Web search—the implication being that Grandpa is a senile fool, a senescent Luddite or a clueless fibber outed by the latest Net browser. Instead of extending a welcoming hand to Grandpa, the kids (figuratively) handed him his muddled head, like a punctured, now useless soccer ball.

A more recent Microsoft approach is gentler in pitting kids against seniors in competitive panoramic photo-stitching videos titled “7 vs. 70”, “8 vs. 80” and “9 vs.  90”. Not only do these videos allow the senior to win once in three videos, but also they package the contests as good-natured and mutually respectful intergenerational fun. For added balance, each contestant is assigned an in-house “Microsoft engineer” as a coach and equalizer.

Still, despite the more balanced interactions, the embedded theme of utterly disparate and otherwise non-interacting generations—not unlike the fan-inflaming premise of a “Mighty Midget” vs. “Herculean Hulk” wrestling match—remains, to deconstruct and nullify the surface theme of cross-generational harmony and familial familiarity.

The subliminal marketing principle underlying the Microsoft battle of the generations seems to be “Even if you can beat them, join them” and shake the very hand you are planning to crush: a generational-marketing win-win for MicroSoft, no matter who else loses to ageism.

It’s also the kind of age-biased interview handshake that no job applicant or recruiter—however young or old—should ever have to experience or inflict…

…especially when care is taken to avoid confusing age with its real or imagined, strong or weak, individual or group correlates.

(Next, Part II: the deepest roots of ageism.)

Read more in Age Discrimination

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).