How to answer, "How Old Are You?"

There’s one interview question no one is ever prepared for: “How old are you?” Aside from cultural taboos around asking about age, you worry that your answer may affect your chance of getting the job. So it’s a good idea to have your answer ready ahead of time.

How you answer really depends on the law. In some countries, it’s perfectly OK to ask about age, and you’re expected to give a straightforward answer. In many countries, however, it’s illegal. Then you have to decide whether to answer, hedge, or take a stand.

Know your rights – or not

Employment laws vary by country, but it’s even more complicated than that, depending on the ownership of the company and the nationality of the applicant. In the United States, for instance, the Age Discrimination In Employment Act of 1967 makes it illegal to ask for information that would reveal an applicant’s age. The law also applies to foreign nationals working in the U.S. and to U.S. citizens working for U.S. companies abroad, but it does not apply to non-Americans working for American companies abroad or to Americans working for non-American companies abroad.

Because of the many factors involved, it’s impossible to spell out employment laws by country. If you want to know whether a potential employer can legally ask your age, start by researching employment laws in your own country. Those laws should spell out who’s covered and who isn’t (both employers and applicants). If that doesn’t provide the information you need, research the laws in the country where you’ll be working, the country where the company is headquartered, or even the company’s own website.

If it’s legal to ask about age

Some countries have no laws barring age discrimination in hiring. In Dubai, for instance, not only is it legal to ask about age in an interview, it’s common for job postings to specify a desired age range. In countries where employers can legally ask about age, your best bet is probably to answer the question directly. If you’re worried about age discrimination, you can try to hedge by saying something like, “I don’t believe that’s relevant to my ability to do the job.” But your interviewer will likely ask again, and, if they’re legally entitled to do so, you’ll probably need to answer if you want the job.

If it’s illegal to ask about age

If an interviewer asks your age and you know that the question is illegal, you have a choice to make:

  • Answer and move on.
  • Politely point out that the question is illegal: “I’m sorry, but I don’t believe that’s a question that’s allowed by employment law. Would you like to move on to another topic?”
  • Hedge:
    •  “I’d rather focus on my relevant skills and experience.”
    • “May I ask how that’s relevant to my ability to do the job?”
    • “What concerns you about my age?”
    • “I think my experience is more important. I have 15 years of industry experience and…”

If you’re over 40 and are concerned that your age might be a problem in getting hired, your first step is to know your rights. Your next step is to decide what you want to do if an interviewer asks an illegal age-related question. And that depends on your priorities. If you really need or want the job, you may want to play along and work to educate your employer after you’re hired. If, on the other hand, you’re in a position where you can wait for the “right” job, you just may want to make a stand to defend not only your own rights, but the rights of those who follow behind you.

photo credit:  freeimages