By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/13/2007 12:04:48 PM ET 2007-08-13T16:04:48

“Do you think you have the energy to do this job?”

Have you ever been asked this question? If the answer is yes and you’re over 50 then you might think you have a clear case of age discrimination on your hands. Then again, maybe not. While the question may be offensive to an older worker, this type of subtle comment or jab is not necessarily illegal.

I actually got a letter from a reader telling me he was asked the “energy” question by someone interviewing him, and he ultimately didn’t get the job. He was surprised because he thought he was a shoo-in. (I address his letter below.)

There’s still a perception out there that older workers may not be able to carry their weight around the workplace, even though cultural experts keep saying 50 is the new 30.

The negative attitude is often more a feeling older workers get than a blatant act of discrimination. Indeed, the number of age discrimination charges at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has actually leveled off in recent years.

Still, older workers convey a sense of dread, that our youth-focused culture is pushing them off to the sidelines. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but you feel there’s an “I’m old” sign taped to your back. Suddenly the office is full of younger employees who don’t really interact with you, or you notice the fresh faced among you seem to be getting the best assignments,  or people assume you know nothing about the latest gadgets and let Gen Y and Gen X types handle all the new office technology.

Many of you who write me about this undercurrent of bias sound more like victims than seasoned work veterans who believe in themselves. You want to know why the young employees think you’re all a bunch of old fogies. Well people, you are. To folks in their 20s and 30s, a 50-year-old seems old. So what’s wrong with that? This has been going on for generations. Hello, the generation gap. That’s just a fact of life.

Why are older workers trying to find ways to make younger workers like them?

When I decided to write this column I got e-mails from career and aging experts wanting to offer you guys advice. Some of it was offensive, frankly. One expert suggests you dye your gray hair, particularly women. This is the kind of mentality that’s getting you all riled up.

So stop spending time in front of the mirror looking for every new wrinkle and gray hair. Forget about shopping for a plastic surgeon or Grecian Formula.

You have to focus on what you can bring to the table. At the top of this list is experience. And take heart. With the impending labor force shortage expected in 10 years as the work force ages they’ll probably be lavishing you with career gifts, so you don’t bolt out of the door .

Here are some of your questions:

About a year ago, I was in the final stages of interviewing for a position as a sales rep for a very large company. I had completed a couple of interviews with lower-level managers and got strong recommendations.  Then another candidate surfaced who was being considered, and this occurred just before my last interview was scheduled with the national vice president of sales.

When I flew to the East Coast to meet with him, it appeared that he was leaning toward the other candidate even though I had what he said was an outstanding background and though I seemed very well-qualified for the position.

About an hour into our interview he bluntly asked, "Do you think you have the energy to do this job?"  The other candidate being considered was in his late 20s or early 30s (according to my sources in the company).  I'm in my late 50s.  Does this high level manager's question seem as out of place to you as it did to me?

When I mentioned it to a family member who is a human resources person, she was surprised that he would be so bold and suggested I call the next person up the line to report his action.  I felt that would be very inappropriate and certainly wouldn't help my standing if I were to be considered for any other positions in the company.

What are your thoughts on this? I'm continuing my pursuit of a change of location and career emphasis and want to know how to appropriately respond if this comes up again.
--C. L., Rohnert Park, Calif.

It’s hard to know if the interviewer just didn’t want to hire an older individual, or if he got the vibe from you that maybe your weren’t up to the job. We may never know the answer, unless you do pursue it, go above his head, or go to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The lack of energy comment may not run afoul of the law on its own, “but it could be evidence an employer is stereotyping older workers, which they can’t do,” says Ray Peeler, an attorney with the EEOC.

But for many workers and job seekers, the last thing they want to do is rock the boat, and it sounds like you just want to find a job.

What you need to do is make sure you are bringing all the enthusiasm you can muster to the job interview.

There is a feeling out there that older workers are stuck in their ways and not as flexible, says Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Aging & Community, University of Indianapolis. So blow that perception out of the water, she advises, by showing them that you’re agile, resilient and able to change on a dime.

“You can’t just say, ‘I have 30 years of experience. Clearly I’m the better person for this job,’” she adds.

You need to keep your skills up and understand the latest technologies for your industry. You want to dispel the myth that older workers can’t adapt and make it clear you’re a team player willing to learn new things.

And if a lack of energy comment in some form comes up again, there is nothing wrong with pointing out that research shows older workers tend to have better judgment and attendance on the job, than the young'uns.

I am back to work at a rather late age 55. Now that I finally found a decent job, how can I get my co-workers to see me as anything but old? I don't feel old, but I feel I am perceived as not computer literate (not true) and resistant to change (completely wrong). I feel I have to overcome the younger employees' prejudice. What can I do?
-- Not Feeling Old Marsha

OK, Marsha, forget about overcoming a generation gap that goes back to prehistoric times. Concentrate on yourself and your job performance. That’s the only way to prove you’re not a dinosaur.

Show them you know your stuff and you can run circles around them. You landed the job so your managers obviously think you can handle the workload.

There’s no easier way to gain the respect of co-workers than letting them see how great you are, says Miller. You can try to connect with workers of all ages, offer advice, or take advice with open arms, and be willing to take on projects and learn new technologies whenever possible.

If you have to do something hip, you can buy an MP3 player, but don’t be afraid to turn up the Beatles or the Stones.

Bottom line, don’t get bogged down by what others think of you.

Also, make sure you’re not feeling a bit of bias toward younger co-workers yourself, advises Miller. Get over the I-could-be-their-grandmother attitude and focus on work.

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