In today’s workplace, being over 40 is unfortunately equated less with being wise and experienced and more with being potentially out of touch and unable to learn new tricks and technologies. And in a job interview, which is all about convincing your potential employers that you can contribute and thrive, being perceived as old in those stereotypical ways can be the kiss of death.
To be sure, there’s no reason to pretend you’re younger than you are, and neither hair dye nor a GQ-inspired wardrobe is going to fool anyone. It’s not about a number anyway — your goal is simply to make it clear you didn’t stop evolving in Clinton’s second term. Think of it this way: If Gawker would snicker at the points you make in a job interview, it’s time to update your pitch.
Over the year-and-a-half I’ve been writing my blog, How Not to Act Old, I’ve talked with hundreds of professionals of all ages about the unconscious ways we unwittingly act old in interview and work situations — and they’re far more subtle than simply offering your interviewer a nice piece of hard candy. Here are a few of the top gaffes to avoid, whether you’re hoping to win a job at a hot new start-up or the leading-edge division of a big company.
1. Don’t play the wisdom card
You may feel that your strongest selling point is that you’ve been there, done that, and that you can help relatively inexperienced colleagues and a young company navigate territory you’ve already mapped. And hey, that may prove to be true, once you’ve got the job.
But thumping too hard in the interview on your years of experience might make it seem as if your best days are behind you. Better to turn the spotlight onto new things you’ve learned, fresh ideas you want to launch, untested adventures you’re eager to embrace.
2. Drop the corporate formality
While interviews still call for more formality than most other professional interactions, you should let yourself be natural, forthright, and open — all hallmarks of Gen X and Gen Y workers. One 56-year-old friend of mine, hired recently as a project manager at a Minneapolis firm where most everyone is half her age, is convinced she clinched the deal when she shook hands with the office dog.
3. Stay away from the slang
Slang is an age minefield, best to be avoided completely. Using such old-school slang as “neat” or “dig” is an obvious age giveaway. “Awesome” sounds artificial when spoken by most people over the age of 40. “Cool” is acceptable if not exactly, well, cool.
The worst offense of all is being dangerously clueless about words or phrases that have acquired non-professional meanings. Yes, “hook up” used to be a more relaxed way of saying “schedule a meeting” as in, “I’d love to hook up with your marketing director. Unless you actually want to get the marketing director in the sack, however, avoid the phrase. Oh, and never say, “in the sack.”
4. Don’t be an ageist
Beware being so preoccupied about being marginalized as old that you’re unaware of the ways you might dismiss your potential employers as naïve, feckless, flighty — you name the stereotypical quality associated with youth. You need to let go of your own age consciousness and cede authority and leadership to the people who are interviewing you, no matter how much younger and less experienced they may be. Behave according to what’s appropriate for your relative positions, not your ages.
5. Drop the name-dropping
Talking about the project you worked on with Pete Peterson and the idea you pitched to T. Boone Pickens may impress your generational peers, but it can backfire with the 32-year-old interviewing you, who may take it as a sign that your contacts are outdated and your reference points are in the past. Unless the name you’re dropping is Biz Stone or Rob Kalin, seek to impress another way. One glaring exception: If you’re talking to “kids” at a startup, and you have an inside track to VCs who can supply their next round of funding, then name drop away, as long as you really can deliver. “John Doerr” and “Roger McNamee” never go out of style.
6. Stifle the unsolicited advice
Some of the things we do to prove the value of experience may actually end up undermining us. Example: offering advice, however sound, on anything from the restaurant for an interview lunch to the design of the corporate logo. The key word here is “unsolicited”: If you’re asked for your opinion, by all means give it. But be aware that the professional gestalt has softened up considerably; advice and opinions may be a lot more powerful if couched in such language as “It seems to me that …” or “I don’t know if this is what you’re looking for, but …” What you want to avoid, in the end, is coming off sounding bossy and annoyingly parental.
7. Don’t get too personal
Most interviews include some personal banter, and you certainly don’t want to seem like a stiff and refuse to play the game. But try to keep the personal talk, well, impersonal: sports, films, news headlines, etc. Whatever you do, though, don’t regale your interviewer straight off the bat with talk of your 28th wedding anniversary celebration (you two should be in a museum!), your three kids in college (boy, how much money are you going to need?), or your house in the suburbs (zzzzz …). And need we warn against any mention of your recent knee surgery? We didn’t think so.
8. Nix the negativity
Corporate culture has, as a whole, become more positive in recent years, at least on the face of things. Call it the Californication of corporate America, with laid-back Hollywood and West Coast-based tech companies like Google and Apple setting the new kinder, gentler tone. Gone as ideals are the hard-driving “Wall Street” style of Gordon Gekko and the brash newsroom cynicism of Woodward and Bernstein, professional role models last famous when your interviewer was in nursery school. Today, the ethos is calm voices, a supportive atmosphere, the celebration of diversity, and an optimistic outlook.
9. Delete the jokes about how flummoxed you are by technology
According to a recent Pew Research Study, today’s generation gap is widest when it comes to technology. You owe it to yourself and your potential employer to get proficient and comfortable with the latest tools — and no, just having a Blackberry isn’t enough. You want to know all about the relevant apps in your field for the iPhone. If you’re in a creative field you should be Twittering, and having a Skype handle in your e-mail signature can’t hurt. Every field has its new technologies that are disrupting the old ways of doing things — you want to be using them.
10. Don’t smirk at the vision thing
A lot of today’s business jargon — reach out, monetize, action item — sounds just plain silly to, ahem, mature ears. But getting comfortable enough to hear these buzzwords without smirking, and maybe even to let one or two of them pass your lips, is more important than ordering a chai latte instead of a plain old cuppa tea at Starbucks. Of course, there’s an app (see No. 9 above) for this — or at least a Web site: an online glossary of business jargon.
11. Don’t fear the niceties
Worried that writing a thank-you note smacks too much of granny? Well, yeah, maybe it does, if it’s on fussy stationery written using your best Palmer penmanship. But a warm, sincere, quick post-interview thank you via e-mail never goes out of style. And if doing something that thoughtful and gracious makes you seem too old to hire, maybe your interviewers are too young to work for.
Pamela Redmond Satran is the author of the New York Times bestseller How Not To Act Old, based on her blog of the same name.
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