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Ageism: Is it as bad as we think it is?

Being a member of the "long in the tooth" AND looking for my next career move crowd it is very appealing to blame the difficulty of finding a new job on ageism. That is, I am not being considered for the job because I have too much experience, I am too expensive, I am not the right fit (culturally), or some other "experience" (spelled A-G-E) related reason. Does ageism exist? Sure but so does every other form of ism that can be imagined. Think of any characteristic or attribute a human being can have and you will find someone who will judge you for it (if you don't fit into their "acceptable" parameters for said attribute).

In an ethics class I regularly teach I lead a discussion about the line between a prejudice and an ism. Many students think it is an arbitrary exercise because all prejudice is bad. I make the argument that technically every human being on the planet is prejudice in that we prejudge nearly every aspect of our lives based on our life experience, culture, ethnicity, family, economic status, and a plethora of other attributes. It is how humans learn. Our brain forms patterns at the drop of a hat and we in turn create logical interpretations or hypotheses that if this thing happens, this will occur (or if this person has this attribute then they are _____ ). We can extrapolate that to any attribute or circumstance (from how fast someone is driving to religion to race to location to age and so on). It is my assertion that we are all prejudice and that in my judgement it is not bad until it becomes an ism. An ism being the action or thought of anyone who injures someone psychically, physically, emotionally, or financially (including removing opportunities) simply based on some attribute (be it race, sexual orientation, gender, veteran status, age, economic status, religion, and so on).

By the way, I would assert that ageism swings both ways. Just ask any Millennial who is productive and gainfully employed if they don't experience any prejudgment based on the era they were born. I just commented in a post on LinkedIn where people were debating the efficacy of ignoring someone's advice based on their level of experience, accomplishment, education, and expertise. It was a very interesting debate between people who thought that experts should not ignore someone's thoughts or ideas simply because on their lack of experience and experts who tired of people seeking them out for advice based on their proven expertise and then ignoring it completely. The conclusion here is don't throw the baby out with the bath water. Anyone may have something of value to share or contribute and we should look for and expect it. And, on the other hand someone should not be ignored just because they've been doing something in some way for a long time. This is true if the results continue to be excellent.

One of the life lessons my father (may he rest in peace) taught me was that life is not fair. Of course it came in the form of some affable expression like "put on your big boy pants and get a move on", "pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get moving forward", "you can cry and let it stop you or you can keep pushing forward with water in your eyes", "there are always others who have less than you who have done more, what's your excuse?" and many others. And then there were my mom's thoughts like "if life gives you lemons make lemonade", "ain't no use crying over spilt milk (but clean it up)", and others. Collect all of these together and an expected outcome would be someone who grows up who is very accomplished, feels some guilt over that accomplishment, but then realizes he worked hard for what he has (but should not rest on his laurels). That person is me.

Back to the theme: Do I experience ageism? Yes. Do I blame it for: what I do or do not have? What opportunities are open or closed to me? Difficulty in finding my next position? No, I do not. It is simply one of many things considered (or one of many things ignored). The manner in which most companies select candidates and in turn hire new employees for any open position is impersonal, ineffective, inefficient, and feels abusive to most people. Companies are looking for any little thing to eliminate candidates and use technology to create barriers as well as limit the number of people who make it to the final stage.

Some companies are emulating the Boston Symphony Orchestra "Blind" Auditions to remove bias in interviews. The Boston Symphony "experiment" resulted in an increase in the number of women in the orchestra going from around 5% in the '70s to higher 30% range today. It is my belief that it will be a long time until companies can create truly blind selection processes and it will probably not occur during my working life. (Rice, Curt (October 2014) "How blind auditions help orchestras to eliminate gender bias" The Guardian)

I am left with contemplating how to navigate the process of finding a new job given the biases of the working world (especially those with the authority to select and hire). The best I can hope for is to rely on my resilience and persistence to lead me to the next big thing.

For those who are looking keep your chin up and do the best you can. For those responsible for hiring candidates please consider how to implement a blind selection process to ensure you find the best employees who will lead your organization into the future (regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race, or other things to which we humans are biased toward).



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