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Commentary: Rejection after rejection during my job search – was it my age or just me?

SINGAPORE: “The team is quite young and we intend to nurture a hustle culture with them.”

This, I would soon realise – in hiring terms – was code for, “I don’t think you’ll fit in, old man”. That in itself didn’t bother me much, but what did bother me though, was that I was beginning to see a trend. 

In the most recent batch of about six job interviews I’d attended – there began to emerge an archetype of hiring managers that, within minutes of talking to me, would in high probability reject my candidacy.

At first, my thought was “Am I the problem here?”.

After much self-reflection I can wholeheartedly say, maybe. Before you judge my annoying prata-flips, let me give some context.

GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN

Ageism in the workplace has been under the spotlight recently, with a survey released by the Ministry of Manpower in July showing that age was the most common form of discrimination experienced by jobseekers. Across age groups, those aged 40 and over had a much higher incidence of being discriminated against.

Considering that Singapore’s retirement age is 63 – and is set to be raised to 65 in 2030 – being told that you’re too old for a job while in your 40s is unnervingly early.

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Singapore’s population is not only ageing, but ageing rapidly – with 25 per cent of Singaporeans expected to be 65 and older by 2030. This will be a massive change not only for society, but the workplace too.

Luckily for older workhorses like me, the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices will soon be enshrined into law.

Now, anyone who’s ever seen my resume will either brand me an incorrigible job-hopper or commend me for my extensive and varied work experience. To be fair, both of these cursory judgments are valid.

Right out of university, I was fuelled by abject idealism, and despite growing older and wiser, this intrinsic motivation or rebellious passion to go against the grain has fuelled most of my career choices. 

This of course came at a cost – for I knew this was not the path to wealth, fame or meteoric success, but rather, a self-gratifying journey of personal wins.

Despite this – never would I imagine that after 24 years of chasing that next new exciting project – I would come to a head-on collision with ageism.

FROM YOUNG UPSTART TO OLD BIRD

The first five years of work were often peppered with, “let’s do this, you’re clearly hungry” from my first bosses. And I absolutely was, my risk appetite was bottomless and I wanted to do more, all the time. 

I went from being scriptwriter for an award-winning TV show to being the editor of two men’s magazines. I was on a career warpath, and I worked myself very close to burn-out. Luckily for me, I eventually recalibrated, mostly from stints overseas and really started to pace myself, but by then the publishing industry was starting to decline. 

I then had to make the hard decision to switch industries and at that point, it was plausible and easier, in fact, to change, mostly because my next batch of bosses in marketing saw my editorial experience as a huge plus. 

By 2018, I had become the head of marketing for a venture capital (VC) but alas, I had also come to a point where I had to make another tough choice. I had to either become an entrepreneur, as per the philosophy of the VC, or choose an alternate pathway, which the organisation would fully endorse and support either way.

So after five years with the VC, I chose to leave and to explore what the market held for a 49-year old man with a chequered CV.

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YOUNG GUN MARKETEERS ARE A DIME A DOZEN

The rejections were varied and in volume, some of them coming in fast and furious.

“You don’t have the necessary experience,” was a common reply. So was “We’re looking for someone less senior”.

In retrospect, it’s hilarious to me now how I simultaneously didn’t have the necessary experience and yet be too senior for the job.

Some rejections, however, were slow and painful, with multiple interviews across recruiters, managers and directors. To which I was either ghosted or simply sent a very tardy rejection email. 

One thing stood out for me though, during those tough job-search months – I became adept at identifying the specific type of hiring manager that would reject me after the first meeting.

They were always early- to mid-30s marketeers, who’d attained an accelerated upward trajectory in the marketing world and were now the marketing heads.

Now, I can absolutely empathise with their decision to reject me outright. Those hiring managers were under pressure to lead young, high-performance teams, all of whom were hungry and ready to hustle.

The last thing they needed was an older man to second-guess their decisions in the midst of the fire-fighting and chaos. They needed to move ahead, unabated.

But here’s the thing about being an older guy with experience, I will second-guess and challenge the decision-making process if I think there might be a better way of doing things.

UNCLE CAN’T HOLD HIS TONGUE

So am I the problem here? Maybe. Is ageism being practised? I think so. But not in an absolutist way. In fact, I would argue that it’s nuanced and contextual. In the end, just as I eventually knew what would not work in my favour – I started seeing what would.

Some of the interviews I’ve attended were an absolute joy, with clear, transparent communication and hiring managers who saw the value I brought to the table. I have since made the transition to a technology company, one that has one of the most diverse team compositions I have ever worked with, with everyone driven to ensure we make a mark in the market.

One of the annoying key drivers of ageism, it seems, is the belief that older employees can’t keep up with technological advancements. Preposterous. I’m literally a tech-bro at 49 – and the assumption that older employees lack the vigour, adaptability or skills required for a “young person” role is unfounded. We older guys have too much at stake, with too many dependents and no time, to even consider ourselves being at a “disadvantage”.

So if you’re on the job hunt, keep at it. No matter who you are, or what you do, there will be an -ism working against you. But take heed, take notes and take charge of your own career – it’s the only way to go. 

Imran Johri is a marketing and editorial professional with extensive experience in the Asia Pacific region.

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