On Ageism: A Rant

by | Mar 21, 2018 | Rant

In my mind, I am an edgy and cool 35-year old. But in reality, I just became a grandmother (4 days ago), and I am at the “I-have-arrived-I-have-streetcred-I-am-wise-hear-me-roar” age of 54 years.

Back in the day when I was ‘between jobs’, having just left my employer of 7 years, and finding myself in limbo, I was on the fence between taking my career in two different directions. I had to make a choice between business development and growing my HR and office solutions firm; or re-entering the workforce and becoming an employee once again (I chose the former, as we all now know). I explored both avenues thoroughly, but for the purposes of this rant (blog), however, I wanted to share my job hunt experiences as an urbanite 50-something.

In an eight-month period, I sent out over 1200 applications to various senior-level HR and Office Management jobs. At the same time, I was also pitching my consultancy services through my professional and social networks, and even making cold calls.

On the job search front, I spent months being ‘phone-screened’ by young, eager-beaver recruiters who told me I was perfect for the job and who never contacted me again. Ever.

These recruiters. Who were they, you ask?

Well, there was ‘Carol’ (not her real name). Carol was looking for someone just like me (according to Carol). Carol was young, hip, laughed at my jokes, barely asked me any questions relevant to the job, told me I was perfect for it nonetheless; and had me come in for a face-to-face interview. Carol said she just loved me, that I was the ‘perfect fit.’ She suggested her client would be open to hiring me as an independent contractor (which is what I really wanted). Carol said she’d call or email me the next day with a date for the final interview with the CEO of the company. Basically, Carol promised me the world. I never heard from Carol again despite my 3 or 4 subsequent follow-up emails.

Next, there was ‘Jane’ (also not her real name). Jane, too, loved me. So much so, in fact, that Jane had me come back twice after the initial phone interview. Then, sadly, Jane who had nothing but glowing reviews for her organization when we first met, left the company unexpectedly and suddenly. I followed up several times with various others in the organization but got the usual polite brush-off.  I was told that with Jane’s departure, the position was “on hold.” They had to re-evaluate the role. I later learned that the company had hired someone much younger than me, with less experience and at a much lower remuneration.

Finally, there was ‘Sarah’ (definitely not her real name). Sarah interviewed me on the phone for a $145,000 per year Executive-level position. Sarah was a recent employee of the company, and by recent, I mean 16 months. Her first year had been spent in reception, after which she obtained her HR Management Diploma and received a promotion to an HR role. She was now ‘Talent Acquisition Manager’ and had been at it for a whopping 4 months. Good for her! Good for the company, too. Hiring and promoting from within is always a good look for a company, so kudos to them for their positive organizational behavior. Good for them, but bad for me.

Sarah’s previous employment had been at a retail women’s clothing chain, where she had worked for 2 years as a sales clerk. She lists greeting customers, cash register balance and retail sales on her LinkedIn profile under her Work Experience. This was the extent of Sarah’s experience in the job market after she graduated from University: The retail chain, her receptionist role, and her current position at the company as ‘Talent Acquisition Manager’ for this global firm.

And yet, here was Sarah interviewing me with my 25+ years’ experience in law firms, government, the Superior Court of Justice, marketing & sales departments in global companies, public relations firms, and now, the proud owner of my own boutique firm, asking me ‘set’ questions, with the sort of tone you’d expect from a telemarketer who has their usual spiel written out in front of them. You get the picture.

Let’s be frank. I had now reached the height of my frustration. I remember thinking to myself: if Sarah reported to me, I would have told her that her recruiting skills were just a tad junior for her role. Scratch that. Had she worked for me, poor Sarah would not be conducting an interview for an executive position paying $145,000 per annum in the first place— nor would I have promoted poor Sarah directly from a receptionist role to a Senior Talent Acquisition Manager role. Who or what exactly was Sarah ‘managing,’ anyway?

Anyone who knows me will tell you I am extremely self-aware, that I like to reflect, and that I think about things deeply. At times, I might even overthink them. I could not help but wonder what I was doing wrong. I did all the things I tell my candidates to do: I made my resumé more ‘user-friendly,’ I used alternate interview techniques, alternative language in my cover letters to potential clients and potential employers. I was creative in my use of language. I used the right insider lingo, the right buzzwords, the right keywords. I did it all. So, what was the problem?

I had an Ah-ha moment one evening; one of those ‘reflective’ evenings, over a bottle of wine and a bag of chips – the jumbo size.

I was too confident. Wait. Too pushy? Uh oh… too intimidating?
Too qualified. Yep, that had to be it – too damned knowledgeable!

Almost certainly too expensive. Too experienced?
Wait a minute. Was I too old?  Was I too old?

People thought of me as old? Could people think of me as old?
You’re kidding, right?

For the first time in my life, I was experiencing ageism. I couldn’t believe it. I continue to enhance my skills and to learn (I’m currently a student at Ryerson university). I am up on current affairs, pop culture and the like. I have knowledge – I know things. I have experience. I am human capital! God damn it, I am relevant!

My clients love me, and I am comforted by that knowledge. Just read their testimonials. Potential employers however, are a different story. I’m also comforted by the knowledge that you always get what you pay for.

As this largely millennial workforce becomes the new norm, and companies look for ways to cut costs, they prefer to hire eager-beavers; bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young minds like Sarah, Jane and Carol at much lower salaries than grizzled, old, reasonable-living-standards me.

Sarah, Jane and Carol may be creative; they may be social media savvy (as am I), hold one or two degrees, (me too!), and have bright futures in front of them.  However, they cannot compete with one thing: experience.

Cutting costs and running a lean operation are noble goals. But it does not mean you hire Sarah at the low, low price of $40,000 a year to interview for an Executive or a Director role. It means you hire the Director who will train Sarah on how to conduct a proper interview. Or, here’s a novel idea, since you know poor Sarah has limited experience but is a pretty cheap date at $40,000 per annum, you, as the CEO of your company, take 15 or 20 minutes to interview your Executive/Director candidate personally if you have no one other than Sarah to conduct the interview. In the end, I am comforted by the knowledge that Sarah will be moving on soon enough and the company will eventually realize – in a painful fashion – experience is priceless.

For an organization to be effective and competitive it must acquire and store knowledge; it must recognize the value of human capital. An important factor to be considered is the human experience. The more experience an employee brings with her/him, the higher the knowledge-level. The higher the knowledge-level and experience, the more valuable that employee is.

One of my all-time favourite 90s sitcom lines is: “It’s not you. It’s me.” (Seinfeld)

I say to all those companies who thought I was too experienced, too expensive or too old:

“It’s not me. It’s you.”

“We don’t grow older, we grow riper.”  ~Pablo Picasso

Effie Tsergas

Founding Principal

Effie has been a champion of positive organizational behavior for over twenty-five years. She founded TSERGAS Human Capital 7 years ago. Aside from her “effervescent” personality and unwavering commitment to HR best practices, Effie is well-known for her work with some of the top legal firms in Canada. She assists clients across various industries with everything from targeted recruitment, strategic human resources planning, and growth and change management initiatives. With a wealth of experience in human resources, investigations, law, public relations, and marketing communications, Effie is a seasoned strategist with expertise you can bank on.