Over 50, and zero job offers

Age bias can be an extra hurdle in this awful job market, but you can make your experience work in your favor.

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By Anne Fisher, contributor

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NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Dear Annie: I'm a week away from my 54th birthday and, man, am I getting discouraged. After being laid off from a fairly senior job in May, I've spent the past few months networking nonstop, and managed to get three interviews. One interviewer never got back to me at all, and the other two both said I am overqualified for the jobs they have to offer.

I suspect that "overqualified" is corporate code for "old and expensive," so I tried to explain that I am more than willing to take a step or two down in position and salary (both my kids are out of college now, and our mortgage is almost paid off), but I still hit a brick wall. How does one get around being seen as "overqualified"? --Highly Experienced

Dear Experienced: A new ExecuNet survey suggests you aren't the only one who suspects your age may be working against you. Fully 91% of 258 headhunters in a recent poll said they believe age becomes "a significant factor in a hiring decision" when a candidate is over 50.

Interestingly, though, fewer than half (41%) of 4,680 over-50 job seekers themselves ExecuNet polled in the same survey think their age has hurt their chances of being hired.

Talkback: Do you think your age is helping or hurting your job hunt? Leave your comments at the bottom of this story.

Perhaps that's because, while age bias certainly exists, "there is far less of it than many people fear," says Rob Saam, a senior vice president who is head of the career transition practice at outplacement giant Lee Hecht Harrison. "Human resources professionals and hiring managers are well aware of all the research showing that someone 50 or older is likely to stay longer, be more dedicated, and be absent less than the average 30-year-old."

So how do you find employers who agree? Whatever you do, don't stop networking, advises Saam. "Otherwise, on job boards for instance, you're relying on your resume alone," he says. "That isn't nearly as effective. If someone sees, not words on a page, but a vibrant, energetic person sitting across the table from them, age becomes much less of an issue."

Networking also gives you an advantage over younger candidates, says Lauryn Franzoni, executive director of national career-development network ExecuNet. "Your years of experience also mean you have more contacts to tap who are likely to be in a position to help you get your foot in the door," she says. "Keep moving on until you find connections and organizations who see your value."

Let's assume you were vibrant, energetic, and positive as all get-out during your three interviews, to no avail.

The problem, in interviewers' eyes, might not be pay or age bias so much as the fact that you recently left a "fairly senior" job, as you put it, says Erik Sorenson, CEO of career site Vault.com. He recommends thinking hard about why a step down in rank really is okay with you, and then talking about that.

"For example, a less senior job may well be a less stressful job, and that may hold a lot of appeal for you at this point," Sorenson says. "But you have to be sincere, because if you say something like that and you don't really mean it, the interviewer will sense your ambivalence and see trouble ahead."

He also suggests cultivating a certain humility, if you haven't already. "Don't forget there is a delicate balance here. You don't want to be seen as gunning for the hiring manager's job," he says. "Talk about how much you want to be part of a team and make a contribution. You might also mention your willingness to mentor others. Another strong point would be enthusiasm about taking on special projects. The point is, you want to convey that you have no hang-ups about not being the boss anymore."

Meanwhile, Sorensen adds: "You were smart to mention that you're amenable to a pay cut because your kids are grown. Legally, employers can't ask you things like how many kids you have or how old they are, so if that whole area of your life is relevant to your career plans now, you have to be the one to bring it up."

You don't mention whether you've been job hunting in the same industry, or the same size companies, as you worked in before. Sorenson has noticed that over-50 job seekers often find a warmer reception in a business that is related to their old field but not actually in it, or in smaller companies where long experience may be relatively rare and thus more valued.

"Startups in particular often lack the kind of long-range perspective and strategic insights that older managers can bring," he notes. "You may need to get a little bit out of your comfort zone, and cast your net a bit wider, to find the right opportunity."

Talkback: If you're over 50, do you think your age is helping or hurting your job hunt? Your career? If you're a hiring manager, how big a factor is a job applicant's age? Tell us on Facebook, below! To top of page

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