Stereotyping on the basis of age is deeply ingrained in the UK. In the wider labour market both the youngest and the oldest come up against prejudice. New graduate jobseekers face a different manifestation of age discrimination: sometimes they are wrongly expected to be exclusively in their early twenties.
Even mature graduates who are only a few years older than the norm can get the feeling that their age counts against them when seeking entry-level posts earmarked for university-leavers. But the situation is changing. Since October 2005 discrimination on grounds of age has been unlawful in recruitment and employment. Even employers who ask job applicants for their date of birth could be in breach of the law.
Among many big companies that recruit for graduate schemes there has been a noticeable change of attitude. Increasingly companies are realising the benefits of having a good mix of employees, including among their graduate recruits. Many leading firms have signed up to the Employers Forum on Age (EFA) which promotes an age-diverse workforce.
Who to apply to?
Inevitably the spread of the new awareness has been uneven. IT has a reputation for prejudice against older workers while, at the other end of the spectrum, public and voluntary employers are much more open minded. For mature graduates looking to start a career in IT, exploring opportunities in public sector technology could be a good idea.
Among older graduates more widely, it could make sense to consider vacancies offered by the 240 members of the Employers Forum on Age and other graduate recruiters who signal on their websites and in their recruitment literature that they are committed to a diverse workforce. But in a highly competitive job market, mature graduates have to search widely to obtain opportunities, looking beyond the big companies with progressive employment practices.
Benefits of experience
The best possible marketing is needed in applications, CVs and face to face with employers. Crucially this means proving that you meet all the recruiters specific requirements. In this respect it is possible for graduates with more experience than the norm to claw out an advantage.
Mature graduates may be able to find plenty of examples of when they made use of skills like teamworking, communicating, flexibility and organisation that employers are asking for, whereas graduates who went straight from school to university can struggle for evidence of what they can do beyond their degrees. An older graduate or student may also have valuable business awareness that younger classmates lack.
If you have had several jobs already, you may need to think quite carefully about which experiences and achievements are most relevant to the employers you are now approaching. On the other hand there are also older graduates who have spent years concentrating on bringing up a family. If you are in this category you may need to analyse your experiences outside employment to come up with appropriate examples to support your applications. If there are skills gaps, you might consider some voluntary work or other activities to fill them.
Use your network
Another possible advantage for older graduates is that they have had more time to meet people. A good network of contacts can be an asset when looking to break into a new field of work, which is what most university-leavers have to do.
While your contacts will not appreciate being asked directly to give you a job, they may be able to put you in touch with people with insight into your target field of work. In this way it may be possible to organise some work shadowing or experience, find out where vacancies are likely to arise and gain knowledge that will enable you to sharpen up your applications.
When presenting your case to employers it is possible to pre-empt prejudices that they may harbour against older candidates. Common stereotypes are that older employees are set in their ways, cannot work well in teams consisting of younger colleagues, will resent direction from younger managers, want more money, are technophobic and are not prepared to put in long hours. Perhaps most insidious of all is the notion that a mature graduate will not be a sufficiently malleable new entrant to a field or company.
If these assumtions are not challenged, they may silently do their work. In applications and interviews refer to examples of how you worked collaboratively with other (younger) students on your course and in university activities. You can also emphasise how demonstrated motivation and embraced change by going to university, which would have involved considerable disruption to your life.
Whatever the age of a new graduate, finding a job is a tough assignment. Your careers service is an invaluable source of support even after you have left university. Try to remain focused even if you suspect that employers prejudice is a factor impeding your progress. You may need plenty of persistence as well as a well targeted campaign to attain your goal.