Ageism in hiring: Is it real and how to overcome it

Here are ways seasoned global development professionals can keep their careers roaring well beyond retirement age. Photo by:

More seasoned development professional may sometimes feel that once they reach their 50s and beyond, the opportunities dry up and they receive fewer call backs for jobs. Global development is not immune to these issues that impact hiring decisions in other sectors, such as ageism, but it is a cross-cutting issues with a number of factors at play.

Within some international organizations, there may be rules in place regarding a mandatory retirement age, disqualifying those near or over that age for the job. However, beyond these organizations, many seasoned professionals fear discrimination even among employers in countries where laws are in place to protect them.

Chen Reis has worked in humanitarian assistance for over a decade and sees how these kinds of policies can be seen by some to be ageist and says that, as with all other industries, there are a number of perceptions about employing older professionals. There are, of course, a lot of positions out there that demand professionals who have extensive experience and are dedicated to their work regardless of age.

“I personally know a lot of people who are 60 and over who are still extremely capable, out there doing really important humanitarian work, including in the field, including really difficult circumstances because that’s where they're interested and their skills lie,” noted Reis.

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Be familiar with mandatory retirement policies

Knowing the mandatory retirement policies, if any, within an organization is a good place to start and saves you the time of applying to jobs where you are less likely to be seriously considered as a candidate. The United Nations system is one example of an employer with a mandatory retirement age: between 60 and 65 depending on when the staff member was hired.

In 2015 the United Nations expanded the retirement age from 60 to 65, recognizing that this policy was pushing out some of their most valuable, experienced staff.

If you are over the retirement age, however, you may still be able to work as a consultant. Many retired U.N. and World Bank staff keep working for their former employers on a contract basis. These positions tend to not be advertised, however, so maintaining a network of contacts within these institutions will be key to landing these kinds of opportunities.

Leverage your experience, to a point

You have something that all employers are looking for and that many younger job seekers may lack: experience. Make sure you are highlighting this at the top of your CV in your key qualifications and professional summary section. Refer to the job description and requirements and demonstrate exactly what experience and expertise you have in this area that you can bring to the job.

However, you may want avoid describing your years in experience past around 30 years. While a 40-year career should impress a potential employer, it can raise flags for those who consciously or subconsciously bias more senior job applicants.

Also, avoid putting too much detail about your early career work experience in your CV. You can leave off or just include employer and job titles for jobs that were over 20 years in the past, unless they are particularly relevant to the job. This will also help cut down on your CV length, another common challenges for more experienced professionals.

Read: CVs: How to fit decades of experience without taking up pages

Take advantage of your network

Careers expert Tom Leamond advises senior professionals to build their career from within. If you are looking to take on a role with more responsibility and perhaps a higher salary, “try to move within the same organization where they already know who you are and there is a natural stepping process.”

Reis agreed that, from her experience in the humanitarian sector, personal experience and knowledge of a candidate is very important when it comes to hiring.

“If you are looking for someone with a ton of experience because it’s a high-risk setting and they just want somebody to go in and get it right, they are going to be more on board with an older person that has experience, especially if that person is known to them or if a person vouches and says ‘this is your woman, she’s the one who is going to get it done for you,’” she explained. “If somebody has a lot of experience and a great reputation, I think their age will matter less.”

Look more to jobs in HQ

Consider positions in headquarters or national offices, which may be desk-based roles but will value your previous hands-on experience in the field. For some global development professionals a natural transition, after years traveling and working overseas, is to roles based in headquarters. Working here, you may not see the impact of your work on a daily basis. But these roles are critical in supporting the overall mission of an organization. Positions in headquarters may focus more on the bigger picture of the organization, but still involve overseeing projects and staff, coordinating with local donor agencies and managing budgets.

There may be opportunities for specialists, for example in child protection or education in emergencies, to work in HQs in advising and shaping policy and processes for programs in those areas. A headquarters office may also value your extensive network of contacts in the sector, which could be useful for building new business and partnerships.

Read: Transitioning from the field to HQ

Make clear your ability

If you are still willing and able to travel, spend time in the field or relocate, make this clear to the employer. There may be assumptions that professionals, both men and women, of a certain age would prefer roles that are more accommodating to family commitments or are physically less demanding. While this can be the case, transitioning to a desk-based job isn’t for everyone, so express your motivations to remain active in the field.

Keep your skills current

One of the reasons some employers bias against older professionals is a fear that they will not be up on the latest technologies and trends in the sector, instead relying on methods that may now be outdated. Mitigate these fears by showcasing the training and continuing education you’ve pursued and emphasizing your most recent work experience.

In an interview, try to avoid appearing like you know and have seen it all. This can signal to an interviewer that you are not open to learning and evolving, which is a requirement for anyone at any stage of a development career.

Don’t mention salary

While you may feel that your years of experience entitle you to a higher salary, don’t mention it in the initial stages of your application. An employer may already expect you to have higher salary demands, so instead focus on your motivation to bring your skills to that position and to work for that particular organization. Salary can be discussed further on in the hiring process when the employer makes you an offer.

Are you a senior global development professional who isn’t ready to hang up your hat? What advice do you have for others looks to keep their careers roaring well after retirement age. Please leave your comments below.

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About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.