How should I handle interview questions suggesting I'm too old for the job?

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Question:

I recently interviewed for a creative position at a high-tech company. I'm in my 60s, and have always worked in the tech field. Rather than focusing on my skills and experience, however, the interviewer kept asking about my interest in new developments and whether I'd be a good fit with the company culture. It started to feel an awful lot like he was suggesting that I'm too old for this field or this company. What should I do if this happens again? 

Answer:

Plenty of companies in fields that are perceived as cutting-edge or trend-based -- such as technology, media, fashion, or the arts -- make the mistake of assuming that older applicants can't cut it. Those familiar stereotypes of old dogs who can't learn new tricks and grandparents who can't program their VCRs (let alone their TiVos or smart phones) are still in circulation, unfortunately. 

Making assumptions about an applicant's skills or interests based on age is illegal. However, that doesn't help you much when you're in the job-hunting trenches. And, it can be very tough to prove discrimination in hiring: You won't have access to any information about the other applicants and what they were asked in their interviews, for example. Although it's understandable that your interviewer's comments caused you to wonder about possible bias, it sounds like they are open to other interpretations as well. Certainly, that's what the company will argue. 

It's not your responsibility to confront or preempt an interviewer's presumptions based on your age. Nonetheless, that might be the best strategy here, both to give you an opportunity to explain how great you'd be at the job and to require the interviewer to proceed with caution in using age as a proxy for skills or interests. For example, if an interviewer expresses concern about whether you would fit in with the company culture, you might respond, "I've worked at several other tech companies, and have found that the open work spaces and frequent collaboration really suit my work style." If the interviewer continues, you could say, "As I've said, I have found it very exciting to work in innovative companies, and I think your company would be a great fit for me. Is there something in particular about your company's culture that you feel would be a problem for me?" 

An interviewer facing these kinds of responses has two options: He can admit to age bias, which gives you fodder for a legal claim if you don't get the job and gives you an opening to address the issue very directly. Or, he can move on to questions that aren't so risky, which gives you an opportunity to explain what a great asset you'd be to the company. Either turns the interview in your favor, if only slightly. Of course, it would be far better if you were interviewing at a company that makes job decisions based on ability, rather than on bias. And, depending on how the interview goes, you might ultimately decide to pursue legal options. When you're sitting in the interview chair, however, you need to make the best of an admittedly lousy situation. 

To learn more, see Nolo's article on Your Rights Against Age Discrimination.

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