How to Counter Ageism and the ‘Over Qualified’ Label in Your Job Search

If you’ve had a long professional career, followed by a sizable break from the workforce, you might be worried about facing ageism in interviews, often hidden behind terms like “overqualified.”

We wish we could tell you that it doesn’t happen, but it does. A lot. It’s frustrating to face.

Ageism, like other -isms, is a structural issue that we need to collectively work to dismantle. In the meantime, there is a set of individual solutions that, while they won’t eliminate ageism across the hiring process, will help you find a job.

1. Practice a good answer to “You seem over qualified.”

Sometimes this question is really about age. But sometimes it’s about worrying that you will be bored and move on quickly. Or that you will want more money than the position is budgeted for.

So you need an answer that accounts for all this. Something like:

“This {industry, field, role} is new to me and I’m excited by the challenge of diving in and learning everything I can. I think some of my past experience will be a benefit and I’m excited by that too. My research suggests a role like this at a company like yours should pay {give a range based on research you’ve done on salaries} and if that is in the ballpark of what you’ve budgeted, I’d love to keep this conversation going.” 

If you get to an advanced stage of the interview process, do future job seekers a big favor by not asking for a much bigger salary than you previously discussed. That’s the fear that recruiters and managers have about people they deem overqualified — that they will profess interest throughout the process then ask for a much bigger compensation package at the offer stage. If the range you discussed in the early interviews is much lower than you would accept, you should say so.

2. Don’t assume ageism.

While I think it’s very important to notice when someone is behaving in a discriminatory way toward someone else, I think it’s less helpful to try and see when someone is discriminating against you. It’s so hard to know for sure, and worrying about it can drive you crazy. It’s better to assume positive intent.

3. Watch out for signs of ageism.

While this might seem paradoxical to the point above, there are signs that a company is going to be less likely to consider an older candidate. If everyone on the “About Us” page is under 30, for example. If their Career page emphasizes foosball and happy hours and doesn’t include many family friendly initiatives.

The job description can be a clue, too. When a company posts a social media manager position with “digital native” as a job requirement, they have laid their cards on the table and shown what kind of candidate they’re thinking of. Assume positive intent, but don’t bang your head against a brick wall.

4. Network, network, and network some more.

How do you get your resume considered even when you have much more experience than the position calls for? By having someone inside say “No, I’m telling you, you have to meet her.” How do you figure out if the company really isn’t going to be open to an older candidate? Someone on the inside gives you the scoop.

However much time you are spending now on reaching out to people in your network, try doubling it and see if it makes a difference in your ability to move forward with employers.

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Interested in learning more? Lordess Townsend, program manager at Path Forward, highly recommends following Ashton Applewhite, a thought leader whose work is centered around combating ageism and discrimination in the workplace.


Written by Tami Forman, the founding executive director of Path Forward and a frequent speaker on issues related to caregiving and workforce participation.

Originally published October 2020.