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How High School Is Haunting — and Hurting — My Job Search

It really shouldn't matter what year I graduated

Graduation cap with a job application printed on the top

Paul Spella

I don't remember who shot spitballs at my algebra teacher's head or how far I threw the javelin at the state track meet. High school moments were important at the time, but as my parents promised, the particulars have faded away.

So I was shocked when the job application asked for my high school graduation date. My diploma does not resemble my car — its value does not diminish with use. It doesn't increase in value, either. It simply marks my first adult achievement.

I left the graduation date blank and clicked “Next.” Error flashed in red. I paused. This information would out me as a woman of a certain age — an age that I proudly wear in my tinsel-highlighted brown hair, but an age that would likely sideline my application.

I searched LinkedIn for connections that might help me get to a hiring manager. I scoured the company's website, board of directors and employee list for friends of friends. I sipped my coffee and made a dental appointment. I spent another 30 minutes honing my cover letter.

It really shouldn't matter if I was born in 1983 or graduated high school that year. Positive thinking: Maybe the hiring squad wanted to confirm I'd add 1980s knowledge to the office trivia team or that I could bring experience to their distinguished institution. A far more likely scenario? My prospective employer had found a sneaky way to weed out the old folks.

For the midlevel middle-aged worker, losing a job can amount to being forcibly retired without the safety net of a pension. And most conversations about workplace bias against women over 40 don't talk about women like me. I stepped out of the workplace to raise a child, changed professions and went back to work full-time in 2012. I'm not the storied executive asked to step aside for a younger colleague. I'm just the gal who can't get hired for a midlevel job because I'm "overqualified” or some other euphemism for old.

Sometimes the rejections are brazen. After receiving post-interview feedback that an entire team thought I was a good fit for a job, I received this email: After thoughtful consideration, we have determined that while your background is impressive, it is not consistent with our organization's needs at this time. The team would like to find someone more junior for the role, with closer to 0-1 year's experience [my emphasis].

The words “You are too old” were not stated; that would have been illegal. But the meaning was crystal clear.

I've been asked if I plan to retire at 65 and if I'm comfortable being managed by someone younger than I. I've had recruiters caution me about a workplace's speed and energy. I've been coached to delete all education years from my résumé, to erase all experience before 2000 and to dye my hair. What next? Should I wear Diane Keaton turtlenecks and cuffs to interviews? Even she's embracing her wrinkles these days.

In the end, I entered “0000” for that high school graduation year. An act of defiance or optimism? I won't know until they call.

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