Each day during my work with clients, I hear three terms used interchangeably: outdated, overqualified, and ageism. But these terms do not mean the same thing. One term is possibly a legitimate reason for not being hired that you can devise a strategy to overcome. Another is a legitimate reason for not being hired that you have 100 percent control over changing in order to get hired. And yet another is illegal for companies to engage in that you have no control over.
Before we dive into which two terms you have control over and which one you don't, let's look at their definitions (on dictionary.com).
Outdated means "no longer in use or fashionable; out-of-date; outmoded; antiquated."
Being outdated means your experience shows you're using an antiquated technology or your skills are not current, and therefore your skills are less in demand. I recently had a jobseeker explain to me he was experiencing ageism for technology jobs. So I took a look at his background. He worked for 10+ years of his 22 years of work experience as a help desk agent for a traditional fax machine company. Fax technology now is not what it was 10 years ago. There is a reason why this company is shrinking. There are not many traditional fax companies to parlay that experience into, and there are certainly not massive tech support teams supporting this antiquated technology.
In this case, both the job the candidate does and the industry the candidate is in are shrinking. Not getting hired because you have dated skills or a job no longer in demand is not ageism. It means you didn't keep your skills current and you are now experiencing the consequences. I know it's tough to hear, but it is what it is. And it can be fixed.
Additionally, having an outdated resume presentation, online presence, or physical presentation can affect how someone perceives you. It's called a first impression. So, if you are wearing suits from eight (or 18) years ago, adding jobs to a resume format from the college career center where you graduated from 23 years ago, or refusing to be on LinkedIn since you never needed it, your job search will suffer. And it's not ageism; it's being outdated. And you can fix it.
Overqualified means "having more education, training, or experience than is required for a job or position."
Being overqualified means you can do the work at hand. No one disputes that, unless your 25+ years of experience in an industry is outdated experience and not utilizing current practices. Assuming your experience is current, being a CFO applying for an Accounting Manager job means you have the qualifications. No doubt. However, to succeed in getting an offer for this position, you need to acknowledge the employer's real concern that you may not be happy because you're in a reduced responsibility position and not getting paid as much as your last job.
Candidates that are dismissive of this concern don't move further in the process. It's a legitimate concern. But when a candidate prepares for this line of questioning to address this concern, they have a stronger chance of landing an offer. The candidate can take steps to combat this. Being denied for a job due to having too much education or higher level experience needed for the job is not ageism. Don't victimize yourself this way by labeling it so, as you can take steps to address it in your interview prep process.
Ageism means "discrimination against persons of a certain age group."
This is illegal. No question. When an appropriately skilled candidate (not overqualified) with a current presentation who happens to be over 40 years old is consistently declined over younger equally skilled candidates, that is a sign of ageism. With this being said, accept that ageism happens. Accepting ageism happens does not mean you are saying it's okay, let me be clear.
By accepting that you cannot control ageism and focusing on changing how others perceive you by not having an antiquated skill set, outdated online/physical presentation, or ill-prepared and overqualified question interview prep, you strengthen your position as a candidate. By focusing on what you can control, you are empowering yourself to win.
This knowledge can help you get that dream job by knowing what you might be up against so you can better prepare. And remember, you can always look to the expertise of those who write executive resumes and work in the industry to improve your chances of success.
A version of this post previously appeared on ChameleonResumes.com.