Digital Native: Ageism’s New Code Words?

The ideal candidate is a digital native who understands beautiful design, thoughtful UX, digital strategy, and client interaction.”

3 to 7 years leading or participating in business or technology projects, preferably in a consulting environment.”

“We’re a team of energetic, young professionals that share a love for dogs, beaches, sunshine, and digital marketing.”

Last year marked the 50-year anniversary of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which took effect in 1968.  But when it comes to the hiring process, age discrimination is alive and well. The examples above all popped up in a 5-minute search on job search sites Indeed and LinkedIn. They are often sneaky and subtle. But they are very real.

“Sometimes, being told you’re ‘overqualified’ is another way of being told you’re too old for a job, Laurie McCann, senior attorney at the AARP Foundation Litigation told the Society of Human Resource Management.

Sneaky and Subtle

Nearly two out of three workers aged 45 and older have seen or experienced age discrimination on the job, according to the results of a wide-ranging AARP workplace survey released last year. Among the 61 percent of respondents who reported age bias, 91 percent said they believe that such discrimination is common.

“Most employers … know enough not to say, ‘You’re too old,’ or ‘I’d rather hire a younger person for the job,'” Laurie McCann, a senior attorney for the AARP Foundation Litigation, told the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM). “In most cases, the individual does not know who was hired instead. Therefore, they cannot compare their qualifications with those of the person hired to determine if age bias may have been at work.”

The EEOC says phrases like “college student,” “recent college graduate,” or “young blood” violate the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1966 (ADEA). But employers are finding sneakier ways to ask questions about age, and to potentially to exclude older workers.

The term “digital native” is one of the best examples of how companies are knowingly or unknowingly using code words to send a message that older workers need not apply. A digital native is a member of the demographic raised in the age of online technology.

“It is code for excluding older candidates from applying for jobs deemed so dependent on their use of technology, that older generations — Boomers, and likely even older GenXers — couldn’t possibly qualify or keep up,” career coach John Tarnoff writes in a recent blog post.  “Employers want Digital Natives on the mistaken and debunked assumption that having been born during the internet age automatically makes one more capable of using technology than someone born earlier.”

Digital Natives vs Digital Immigrants

Marc Prensky coined the term “digital natives” in 2001 to describe “all native speakers of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.”  Those born earlier, and brought up before these technological conventions, he called “Digital Immigrants.” Prensky has since modified his view on Natives vs Immigrants, and now prefers to address the need for Digital Wisdom.

Other questions that might reveal age bias, according to an article in SHRM, include asking older applicants if: they’re comfortable working for a younger manager, how they’d feel in an office full of colleagues straight out of college, if they’re sure they want to work long hours, what year they graduated from college, and why they’d want to take a cut in pay or job prestige.

“Employers are squirming because there is increased attention to the age bias in hiring,” Tarnoff says. “What’s worse is the advertising on social media that targets younger viewers, so that older people aren’t even viewing the ads.”

Age-Proof Yourself

So what do you do about it?

Emphasize, rather than hide, your experience. Your experience can be an asset if positioned correctly. This work history is something younger workers simply do not have. Especially highlight transferable skills that will be useful in most any job.

“Face the reality, and translate the benefits of your experience into unique selling points. Then proceed with the benefits that your experience and maturity allow you to bring to the job,” suggests Job Hunt.

Top Interview concurs that your age should be positioned as an attribute. “For example, ‘That’s an interesting question. I’m forty-nine, and as such, I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs in this job market, and I’m familiar with how to handle these high and low periods. I’ve had plenty of time to make my share of mistakes during my career and face many of the issues that arise in departments like this, which puts me in a position to support the team and quickly handle difficult situations should they arise.”

Stay on top of the latest job trends, and upgrade your skill set to what is required in the job market. New skills and knowledge can help you do better in your career, and new credentials on your resume can open you up to new opportunities. There are many free classes online for various skills, particularly in technology.

“Embrace the fact that things are constantly changing and that you’ll need to – and can – adjust,” suggests Job Street Education. “If making a big change seems daunting, break it down into smaller, manageable adjustments.

The Balance Skills offers tips on how to age-proof your resume, including limiting what you include. “There’s no need to mention every job you’ve ever had. Include only the most recent positions and, if you attended college, don’t list your graduation dates.:

Fighting Age Discrimination

And some people are taking their cases to court. This type of age discrimination is very difficult to prove, workplace experts say.

“You have a hunch, you think age was a factor, but in most cases you don’t have the evidence because you’re on the outside looking in,” McCann told the SHRM. “You know you didn’t get the second interview, but you don’t know who did. For most people, looking for a job is a physically and emotionally exhausting experience. Most people don’t want to bring an age-discrimination case; they want a job.”

There’s the burden imposed by a 2009 US Supreme Court ruling, which held that to prove age discrimination in the workplace, a plaintiff must show that age was the predominant reason for an employer’s action.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. A growing number of people are taking these kinds of cases to court. There’s a current court case where a company is being sued for putting a maximum number of years of experience in a job posting, says Tarnoff.

Cheryl Fillekes took on Google’s hiring practices. Fillekes — a systems engineer who applied unsuccessfully for four different jobs at Google between 2007 and 2014 — filed a lawsuit against the company in 2015. She alleged that one Google recruiter told her to put her graduation dates on her resume so the interviewer could see how old she was. At least 269 other plaintiffs have signed on to the case. Google has denied the allegations, stating that it has strong anti-discrimination policies. A settlement is pending for the other lead plaintiff.

AGEIST community member Christie Adams fought and won her 2009 lawsuit.

Adams, then 59, had been out of the workforce for five years to care for an ill parent and applied for an inside sales position with a media company. Instead of hiring 59-year-old Adams, who had past sales experience, the company hired four applicants between the ages of 24 and 38.

Adams subsequently filed an age discrimination lawsuit which was eventually heard by the Hawaii Supreme Court. In a statement under oath, the company president stated that he did not hire the woman because she did not have any sales experience in the last five years. The company president also indicated that he made the hiring decision because most of her previous sales experience was outside sales rather than inside sales.

In a 5-0 decision, the Hawaii Supreme Court held that the plaintiff provided sufficient evidence of age discrimination for her case to go to trial. The more impactful part of the case was decided in a 3-2 decision. The court’s ruling offered two guidelines to employers to clarify both the job description and the hiring decision. The court held that actual job requirements must be articulated by employers.

“Sometimes you have to use the law to institute change,” says Adams. “We need to ‘train’ employers.”

Find out more about how to put position yourself from human resource professionals here.

Howe to build your career network? Read here. 

See medical disclaimer below. ↓


  1. There is a segment of the digital world where your age may be an advantage! Retired senior people formed a billion $ digital entertainment market including video games. Video games for 65+ must be adapted to senior’s physiology including lower fine motor in hands. If you are 65+ game developer you can test your games yourself better than any “digitally native” tester! Being a 65+ DIY fan, I invented and build a foot-operated game controller that gives a chance to play active arcade games even if you are 100+ and have a terrible tremor in your hands 🙂 https://youtu.be/21oE_2CN3GA


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The ideas expressed here are solely the opinions of the author and are not researched or verified by AGEIST LLC, or anyone associated with AGEIST LLC. This material should not be construed as medical advice or recommendation, it is for informational use only. We encourage all readers to discuss with your qualified practitioners the relevance of the application of any of these ideas to your life. The recommendations contained herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. You should always consult your physician or other qualified health provider before starting any new treatment or stopping any treatment that has been prescribed for you by your physician or other qualified health provider. Please call your doctor or 911 immediately if you think you may have a medical or psychiatric emergency.

Michelle Breyer
While working as an award-winning business reporter for a daily newspaper in Austin, Michelle Breyer co-founded NaturallyCurly 1998. NaturallyCurly - which empowers, educates and inspires world for women with curly, coily and wavy hair - into one of the largest media companies dedicated to hair topics. She has written for a number of publications.


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