You've never seen a sign that reads, AGEISM IN ACTION. But maybe you've met Kristie.
Picture Kristie as a feisty, friendly and ambitious blue-eyed blonde. Twenty three years old. Aerobics champ. Hard charging and hard-wired to her Smartphone. Knew enough to pluck those college party pictures off her Facebook page, so she easily got the job in Human Resources with the big corporation where Dad's college friend is the Senior Vice President. Everyone in the department thinks she's great.
Now she's in charge of screening resumes. Which means that if you are anywhere north of 50 (40 in certain industries) she is in charge of telling you "No." By automated letter of course. But the goal is still the same. To find who is NOT a candidate for the job.
She would never think of herself as an "ageist." She likes old people. Loves her Dad. Tell her that "ageism" could mean a prejudice against any age and she'd go, "Huh?"
If Kristie were to google "Ageism," she'd find solid research going all the way back to 2006 citing ageism as being perceived to be a bigger barrier to employment than sexism or racism.
If she were to visit her parents one night, maybe a Wednesday when nothing else was happening, and Dad was laughing at a rerun of a show called Seinfeld, perhaps she'd see a guy dressed in white, standing behind a cafeteria steam table making up rules about who will get some of his delicious soup. And before Kristie could scamper out of the room so her Dad wouldn't ask her to watch, she might hear the TV character Soup Nazi bark out "NO SOUP FOR YOU!"
Kristie would never see what she had in common with Seinfeld's Soup Nazi. He had a steam table and she had a DO NOT REPLY email address. But their cry to the world sounded awfully similar.
Kristie's being "NO JOB FOR YOU GRANDMA!"
It wouldn't be posted on a sign in her cube. She'd never tweet it, or even say it. No one would tell her to say it. But in working with the "key word identifiers" (the software that eliminates a percentage of the resumes before they are seen by human eyes) and her hiring managers, Kristie learned quick. "NO JOB FOR YOU GRANDPA!"
Kristie checks to see if the applicant has done an identical job for a set number of years. If not -- she eliminates the candidate. Most of her job orders call for a person who has had 3-5 years of experience. Less than 3 or more than 5? Kristie can say "No!"
Columbia University's Dr. Robert Neil Butler first coined the word "ageism" in 1969. So the problem isn't new. And it's much bigger than Kristie. She is a visible part of a system. Spread out behind, around, and over Kristie is a complex web of economic market forces, HR departments with a mission to defend the status quo and a societal tidal wave of indifference that lets ageism happen with barely a peep. None of it can be seen or touched. Ageism is more like a bad smell whose source you just can't seem to find.
The temptation to lash out or blame this system is of course very natural. Unseen enemies can be terrifying. Ageism is an unseen force that can shatter self worth, personal security, ripple out into marriages, friendships, health, and then take aim at the larger economy by making sure that experience and institutional knowledge is removed from the work force. "Who do I blame?" is a natural question when ageism is in action.
But the guidance of systems thinkers like the great Peter Senge has given us a way to think differently about ageism in action. Just for a moment, take "blame" out of the picture. Now, ask another question:
What exactly is driving the push to only hire a person of a certain age?
The answers will vary. But dig deep enough in all the answers and you'll find "the perception of risk." A perception that could be flat out wrong. But it's there. Systems are designed to protect themselves. Protection comes from having fewer choices. Set choices. And as every professional recruiter knows, there is nothing really simple about the hiring decision. Not only is it the most important decision in any organization, it is a complex decision that, when done well, requires more than software. It requires a person. Who just might be risk aversive themselves.
So, what's the path to stopping ageism in action for you? It's bypassing blame and moving straight to addressing that perception of risk. It's being able to include in the way you tell your story:
Here's exactly why you'd be minimizing your risk, if you hire me.
It won't work every time because every work search is different. And there are no magic answers. But until talent replaces age or experience in hiring, directly speaking to how you can minimize risk, gives you one more tool for finding work in a world where there are no jobs.
A world where ageism is always in action.