Ageism in America: Discrimination by Employers
How to combat it when applying for a job and once you have one
(This article appeared previously on Grandparents.com)
A few weeks back, a friend confessed he was worried about finding work after he turns 50. His admission came shortly after a fortysomething acquaintance wrote this on Facebook:
Just spilled my coffee on a Millennial talking about how he won't hire anyone who has been on the work circuit for more than 15 years.
As they move into their 40s and 50s, members of Generation X are confronting the reality of ageism in the office, something older workers know all too well. For boomers, it's been a fact of life for decades, making it difficult to find and keep jobs in fields dominated by younger and younger coworkers.
The situation was only exacerbated by the Recession of 2008, which led many older workers to find themselves out of work for weeks, months and even years. Some have never recovered, financially speaking. Some never will.
It has everything to do with widespread, culturally ingrained age discrimination. "Ageism is alive and well in the workforce," says Kerry Hannon, career expert, Next Avenue blogger and author of Getting the Job You Want After 50. "And you don’t need to sugarcoat that."
The Facts About Age Discrimination at Work
Ageism begins during the job search. While the current unemployment rate for people 45 and over is comparatively low — about 3.5 percent versus 4.9 percent nationally — older workers are at a disadvantage when looking for new gigs. They take longer to find work and make up about 45 percent of the long-term unemployed.
When they are hired, it’s frequently in occupations that are different from their previous jobs, and they often settle for less money — especially if they’ve been out of work for an extended period. In a 2014 survey of roughly 2,500 older workers who'd been unemployed in the previous five years, 57 percent said “employers think I am too old” was a barrier to being hired.
Research supports their claims. Last year, University of California Irvine economist David Neumark sent out 40,223 resumes, and found that workers age 29 to 31 were 18 percent more likely to get a callback than workers age 49 to 51, and 35 percent more likely than workers age 64 to 66.
From offensive comments to unexplained layoffs, ageism doesn’t stop once you’re on the job, either.
About two in three workers between age 45 and 74 have experienced it at work, according to AARP. Most people believe ageism starts in their 50s, though research suggests it actually begins around age 35. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 was supposed to address this unfairness, but in 2015, over 21,000 complaints were filed with the government.
"In my experience, most have been people who have been employed for a long time, who have gotten up there in age and wind up being terminated," says Scott M. Behren, a Florida-based lawyer who handles age discrimination cases. "A lot of time the older employees are making more money, and the companies want to get rid of the higher-paid employees."
Sadly, such cases almost never see the inside of the courtroom. "Discrimination claims are difficult," says Behren. "There’s usually a harder standard of proof."
Why Age Discrimination Happens
Unsurprisingly, age discrimination is rooted in preconceived notions of older workers. "[Management] worries that you’re not up for the job, that you don’t have the stamina and energy, that you’re not up to speed with technology, that you’re stuck in your ways," says Hannon. "They’re worried that your salary demands are high and you’re expensive in terms of benefits. They’re concerned you won’t be happy reporting to a younger boss, that you’re not in it for the long haul — that it’s a holding place until you actually retire."
As it turns out, however, mountains of research contradict these harmful stereotypes.
"Older workers are more loyal, tend to be more engaged in their jobs and have a bigger network to pull from in terms of getting the job done," says Hannon. One 2012 Journal of Personnel Psychology meta-analysis of over 400 studies found that negative stereotypes associated with older workers — including low energy levels, more health problems, extra family commitments and resistance to change — were totally unfounded. Another 2015 AARP report discovered that employees over 50 cost less than expected and displayed "greater professionalism, a stronger work ethic, greater reliability and lower turnover."
What to Do: Getting Hired
Despite all the evidence, preconceived notions about older workers persist. Hannon has four tips to combat ageism while job searching:
- Market yourself. "Focus on your selling points as an individual worker," she says. Tailor your experience to the specific job. "Be conscious and focus on your skills and what you have to offer the employer based on what their needs are."
- Get fit. "The real key to fighting the stamina [stereotype] is to get physically fit," notes Hannon. She says it’s not necessary to run marathons, but an exercise program is a good idea. Hannon's view: "Your appearance matters, and when you’re fit, you deliver."
- Stay up-to-date with tech. Computer knowledge is necessary to function in the modern workplace, including social media. "You have to be on LinkedIn to show you’re agile, and you understand technology," says Hannon. Don’t ignore the latest developments in the field, either. "When a job has a certain requirement, and says you need a certain certification in a certain area, go get it," advises Hannon.
- Reframe your compensation. "Think of salary as more than just that number. Think of it as a total compensation. Can you negotiate for vacation? Can you negotiate for flex time? Autonomy and feeling in control of your time and work-life balance means so much more than a number," Hannon says.
What to Do: On the Job
What if you’re experiencing ageism on the job, whether it’s a new gig or a long-held position?
If it’s something relatively small, like a passing comment, address it when it happens. "Say, 'This is troubling me,'" says Hannon. "Call it out. Don’t just hide it under the table. And if it doesn’t stop, you do need to go human resources and get a record."
Don't do anything to encourage ageism stereotypes. "Be very careful talking about the old days, or that your knees are creaky," Hannon says. "I encourage people not to say anything age-related."
If the problem is more than inconsiderate remarks — you’re passed over for promotions or unnecessarily disciplined, for example — you might consider taking action. "Document it as much as possible in writing to HR," says Behren. "Keep diaries, keep logs of actions taken against you because of your age."
Understand, though, that age discrimination is almost never explicit, making it hard to prove. Employers rarely say they’re disciplining or firing someone because of his or her age.
Dispute unfair disciplinary actions in writing, and if you are fired, make sure your lawyer sees any severance agreement before you sign.
Should you decide to pursue your complaints further, remember that age discrimination lawsuits rarely make it to court. “It’s really hard to win these cases,” says Hannon. “If you can deal with it without going the full distance, you’re probably better.”
What’s to Come
Ageism — both at work and outside the office — isn't going away anytime soon, but we can help make things better for older employees by just being ourselves.
Standing up for our own qualifications and confronting prejudices against working boomers are just two of the real, actionable measures we must take in addressing larger, more institutional issues.
And if you're anxious your struggles will be for nothing, don't worry. As Generation X is discovering, ageism eventually happens to everybody.