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What does “overqualified” really mean in hiring?

Meghan McCarty Carino Jan 18, 2024
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"The reality is that 'overqualified' is often a code word for too old," says Dana Siomkos, founder and CEO of recruiting firm You and Them. As more young people move into managerial roles, older job searchers are having trouble getting hired. skynesher/Getty Images

What does “overqualified” really mean in hiring?

Meghan McCarty Carino Jan 18, 2024
Heard on:
"The reality is that 'overqualified' is often a code word for too old," says Dana Siomkos, founder and CEO of recruiting firm You and Them. As more young people move into managerial roles, older job searchers are having trouble getting hired. skynesher/Getty Images
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Older Americans are becoming a bigger slice of the population as the Baby Boomers age, and they’re staying in the workforce longer than their predecessors did. People 75 and up are the fastest growing segment of the workforce, according to recent analysis from the Pew Research Center.

Keeping more people in the workforce is generally a good thing for the economy, but having four generations in the workforce together can feel crowded. Young people have long complained about their elders not making space for them to advance (just look at the political landscape). 

That may still be happening. But, at this point, it’s the younger generations that are moving into management roles and doing a lot of the hiring, and not always giving older candidates a shot. 

Getting turned down for a job is never fun, but the last time it happened to Amy Massingale, she said, it really stung.

“I was told that they were looking for someone with … less experience,” she said.

Massingale, who lives in Portland, Oregon had applied for a position in business development, very similar to her previous job, from which she’d been furloughed. She seemed to tick all the boxes, went through several rounds of interviews and had been feeling hopeful. 

“The first thought that came to mind is, ‘I should have dumbed down my interview,'” said Massingale. “And then I wanted to cry after I had that thought. I just I felt like that’s a really sad state of affairs if I feel like I can not be my full self.”

Massingale had already removed a decade of work and the reference to caregiving for family on her resume. And she’d begun using touch up dye to darken the faint halo of gray hairs she noticed in her Zoom reflection.

“I don’t have any problem with going gray, I really don’t,” she said. “But it’s this feeling of society’s just kind of discounting me and discounting the totality maybe of my experience, and that experience is a bad thing. And I don’t understand that. In my mind that’s a good thing.”

Massingale isn’t even a boomer. She’s 55 — part of the chronically squeezed and overlooked Generation X. She wrote about her experience on LinkedIn and found a lot of company. Because the longer people work, the harder it becomes to avoid being labeled “overqualified” for basically any job.

“I mean the reality is that ‘overqualified’ is often a code word for too old,” said Dana Siomkos, founder and CEO of New York City recruiting firm You and Them, which focuses on creative professionals in digital media. 

She noted employers sometimes have legitimate concerns about whether a position will be stimulating or high-paying enough for a more experienced worker, but “it’s definitely something worth examining in the same way that we’re examining other discriminatory behaviors like racism and sexism.”

Older workers are often stereotyped as luddites set in their ways, said Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School of Business who co-wrote the book “Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order.”  He said it’s not just discrimination these workers struggle against, “but also just uncomfortableness and younger supervisors who are afraid to hire older subordinates.”

This year, Generation Z, those born from about 1997 to 2012, will likely outnumber Boomers in the workforce, while millennials outnumber everyone else, including Gen X. Cappelli adds that a business culture that’s less hierarchical has made younger bosses more common.

“Unstated is, ‘I don’t know how to manage somebody who looks like my dad,'” said Cappelli.

It’s a sentiment that resonates with Atlanta-based former sales executive Michael Finch. As a young supervisor he felt the same back before he became a dad and now a grandfather of eight.

“I think there’s just an insecurity that if we bring on this person that has all this experience, and all these years, they’re going to try to take my job or they’re going to make me look bad,” said Finch.

Now at 61, he’s on the other side. Finch said he’s applied for dozens of positions in the last year and a half after getting laid off from a VP-level job at a medical imaging company. And the thought that he could be perceived as a threat is frustrating.

“Most of us, we’ve climbed all the ladders that we want to climb. I’m not interested so much in ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to make millions and I’ve got to have this title and all that,'” said Finch. “It’s just not meaningful. What’s meaningful is the work.”

But job candidates like Finch or Amy Massingale often don’t get a chance to make their case when they hit the “overqualified” wall.

Massingale said the hiring manager never discussed her salary requirements or whether she was looking for a position with management or growth potential.

“I would have loved to have had that conversation, honestly,” she said.

Instead Massingale found another job, which she started in mid-January, and said she didn’t have to dumb down her resume to get it. 

Michael Finch was still looking for a full time opportunity — in a very chill non-threatening way.

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