'Gen X has had to learn or die': Mid-career workers are facing ageism in the job market

 Gen X workers are being passed over for roles of all kinds, especially as employers see young people as more malleable. The timing couldn't be worse.

Since his layoff last May, Nick, a 49-year-old HR executive based in the US, estimates he's applied for hundreds of jobs. He secured interviews at 10 companies and made it to the final round at four of them. Each time, the position went to a younger candidate.

"It's tough not to take it personally," he says. "I have an excellent track record and lots of experience. A company should be lucky to have me, right?"

Throughout his search, Nick has received lots of advice on how to position himself as a job candidate in his demographic. One head-hunter suggested he remove his education dates from his LinkedIn profile to prevent employers from calculating his age. A recent encounter with a hiring manager, however, was not as subtle. "He said to me, 'You can't make many more pivots in your career at this point'," says Nick. "The implication was that my prior job might have been my last. It was blatant ageism." 

Ageism has long been a concern in the job market, but the confluence of mass layoffs, post-pandemic economic uncertainty and rapid technological change – including the emergence of AI – is hitting Gen Xers particularly hard. According to a 2022 AARP survey, roughly 80% of workers between the ages of 40 and 65 reported having either witnessed or personally faced age discrimination at work. This percentage represents the highest recorded by the organisation since it began conducting polls on the issue among older adults in 2003.

Gen Xers, largely defined as people in the 44-to-59 age group, are struggling to get jobs. First, the leadership roles they would normally ascend to aren't open, as many Boomers are delaying retirement and clinging to their jobs. But when roles have opened, ageism is a key factor: the accelerated pace of technological advancements has led managers to prioritize digital natives for open roles, believing they are more adaptable than Gen Xers – even though experts say these judgments are unfounded, if not entirely false. 

It's a particularly bad time for mid-career workers to be grappling with age bias, according to Christina Matz, associate professor at the Boston College School of Social Work, and director of the Center on Aging and Work. Many Gen Xers are navigating the "sandwich" phase of life, juggling responsibilities like childcare and support for aging parents, she says. They have burdens on both their time and their money – and most are not ready to stop working, whether because they have pressing bills to pay, retirement to save for, or because they don't want to lose career momentum.

These factors, combined with the perception that Gen Xers don't quite fit into either the tech-savvy digital native or highly experienced worker categories, leave them in a uniquely vulnerable position, says Matz. "Gen X is caught in the middle. And where does that leave them?"

Getty Images Many Gen X workers say they've thrown tens, even hundreds of applications at companies, with zero luck (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images
Many Gen X workers say they've thrown tens, even hundreds of applications at companies, with zero luck (Credit: Getty Images)

Age discrimination is illegal in many countries. And not only is it often difficult to prove, but its impact on people's careers is also very real. In some cases, like Nick's, older workers will be turned down for jobs; other times, they'll be passed over for leadership positions or overlooked for training and development opportunities.

Studies show that older workers (broadly defined as those aged 55 to 64) and mid-career employees (aged 45 to 54) face a variety of stereotypes and misconceptions. Members of Gen X, born between 1965 and 1980, straddle both these age groups. 

Among these biases, older workers are sometimes perceived as "doddering but dear". Matz says, "They're labeled as slower and set in their ways, well-meaning on one hand and incompetent on the other. People of a certain age are considered out-of-touch, and not seen as progressive and innovative." Women face additional hurdles. Women in their 40s are often perceived as being preoccupied with family responsibilities. "Being a woman and being older is a double whammy," adds Matz. 

Assumptions like these are not only potentially discriminatory and often inaccurate, but they're also at odds with today's workforce realities, says Anne Burmeister, an Academy of Management Scholar and assistant professor at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, Netherlands. The workforce in many industrialized economies is aging and perpetuating age-based biases makes "no business sense", she says.

"Very few organizations recognize this external demographic trend and even the ones that do seem to not see the urgency to act," she says. Instead, argues Burmeister, "what organizations should be doing is putting in place policies that leverage older workers' skills, expertise and experience".

Matt Hearnden, a former executive recruiter turned career coach in London, says he's observed many instances of ageism second-hand while coaching his Gen X clients through their job searches. "There's a perception among some hiring managers that older workers aren't up to date on the latest technologies," he says. "For whatever reason, there's a sense that younger candidates are more open-minded and more easily mouldable."

He recently coached a software engineer in his late 40s who was struggling to land a job and support his family after being laid off at a cybersecurity firm. He says his client had received "some coded feedback from hiring managers" that he was "overqualified" and "too experienced" for the roles he was applying for, and therefore undesirable as a candidate.

Getty Images Many of the jobs mid-career workers once held are now going to younger workers, whom companies feel are more adaptable and digitally savvy (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images
Many of the jobs mid-career workers once held are now going to younger workers, whom companies feel are more adaptable and digitally savvy (Credit: Getty Images)

Hearnden advised the engineer to emphasize his willingness to learn, teamwork abilities and overall versatility. By shifting the focus from his age and experience to his transferable skills and adaptability, the engineer was able to present himself as a more attractive potential employee. "He ended up with a job offer, but he was stressed throughout the whole process," he says.

Employers' age biases may be blinding them to the talent they want and need. Older and middle-aged employees tend to have a strong work ethic and lower rates of absenteeism. Research also suggests they exhibit better emotional stability compared to their younger colleagues, and they're generally more adept at handling social situations in the workplace, including conflict resolution.

Adrion Porter, a US-based age-inclusion advocate who consults with organizations on mid-career development and career longevity, argues that Gen Xers are more adaptable than commonly perceived. Employers often wrongly equate youth and exuberance with digital skills, says Porter, who is a Gen Xer himself. 

Although it's true Gen Z and millennials grew up with technology, members of Gen X have had to master many emerging technologies throughout their careers. "We entered the workforce when email was just being introduced. First, we had to learn the internet, then Web 2.0, and now AI. Gen X has had to learn or die," he says.

The cruel twist of ageism in the workplace, says Porter, is that it preys upon our fears of irrelevance, and ignores the fundamental truth that aging is universal. He says that ageism is the one 'ism' that remains widely tolerated, "but it's one dimension that everyone experiences". After all, he says, "We're all getting older."

One approach to addressing ageism in the workplace is through inclusivity programs. Yet notably, in companies' diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategies, "age has been left behind", says Boston College's Matz. A January 2023 report from PwC Netherlands showed that across Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands, only 8% of companies DEI agendas address age

Burmeister contends organizations are not only holding back mid-career workers but also missing out on the opportunity to establish age-inclusive practices, particularly in light of the demographic shifts.

Nick, having experienced these challenges during his 10-month job search, wholeheartedly agrees with this assessment. "A job doesn't define you. I know this. But when months go by, and I'm not getting traction, it gets hard," he says. "I have to constantly remind myself that it's not me."

Nick has more interviews lined up in the coming weeks and remains hopeful that the next hiring manager he meets will appreciate what he brings to the table. "Some people have this idea that 50 is old," he says. "But 50 is prime." 

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