Are Concerns About Age Discrimination by Employers Overblown?
A chat with a labor market scholar who thinks they may be
Talk to a job seeker over 50 and you’ll likely hear frustration, if not anger, about perceived age discrimination by employers. Many 50+ job hunters believe their age has kept them from getting hired or even getting a job interview. But Philip Taylor, a respected Australian professor specializing in age and the labor market, thinks that age discrimination concerns may be overblown.
In fact, Taylor’s research says, younger men face more workplace age discrimination than older men.
I heard Taylor, who is associate dean, research at Federation University Australia and professorial fellow at University of Melbourne, make these provocative arguments a few months back at the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) conference I attended as a GSA Journalists in Aging fellow. Though I don’t agree with all of Taylor's views on the subject, I wanted to learn more about them. So I rang him up and heard him expound not only on misperceptions of age discrimination, but why some older applicants need to up their skills and why employers need to do more to help their older workers.
Below are highlights from our conversation:
Richard Eisenberg: Is age discrimination against older workers overstated as a problem?
Professor Philip Taylor: To a large extent. I think it is complicated and nuanced.
In Australia, there’s a tendency among advocates of older people to state that age discrimination is endemic. My view is that the evidence is not there to support that claim.
Research by my colleages at the University of Melbourne shows that the reported incidence of age discrimination among experienced older job seekers has been in a long-term decline. And if you look at some other data we analyzed, we find the reported incidence of discrimination is quite low.
Also, research has indicated that people are more likely to report ‘every day’ discrimination that’s not ageism or sexism. Things like perceiving that they missed out on promotions unfairly or hearing insulting jokes or comments.
And when you look at the data, it’s young men who are more likely to report such experiences than older men. Among women, there are no age differences. So the picture is complicated.
One thing that’s important to stress: I don’t believe age discrimination is a phenomenon that’s only experienced by older people. I think it’s useful to rethink age discrimination from a generational solidarity point of view. If we argue that age discrimination can happen to anyone, that then opens a discussion between older and younger about issues of work, so we’re not pitting the young versus the old.
Are older job applicants who don’t get hired right to believe age discrimination is the reason?
You may believe you experienced age discrimination when you didn’t get hired. But is it true? Or were you surmising about it because of your age? Maybe there were other factors at work. It could have been your skill set was not suitable.
Advocacy organizations need to be careful how they approach this issue and not tell older people they will be discriminated against because of their age. That’s a mistaken approach to tackling age discrimination.
Last year, AARP found that 61 percent of Americans age 45 and older it surveyed said they have experienced or seen age discrimination at work. What do you make of that?
There may be something peculiar about the U.S., that older people are more likely to feel age discrimination.
I believe age discrimination by employers exists and probably affects older job seekers more than other workers, generally. But is it endemic? I would be very cautious about making that argument.
Older job seekers often say they can’t hired because of their age. Are they wrong?
Age discrimination is an issue; don’t misunderstand me. But whether age discrimination explains all of the situation, I’m doubtful.
The OECD [The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an intergovernmental group with 36 countries] says age discrimination is everywhere. If you look at our data, it certainly isn’t, from a workplace perspective. Employers may use age stereotypes with people who are looking for work, but they are less likely to apply the stereotypes to the people they know inside their workplace.
What do you think of the view that older workers are more dependable and less likely to leave employers than younger ones?
Advocates for older people argue that older workers are supposedly more reliable, more loyal and will be with you longer as an employer. I think these advocates are firmly drawing on age stereotypes. Saying older workers are more reliable is an inference that younger workers are unreliable. I have an intellectual problem with advocating for older workers by using age stereotypes.
Employers view these stereotypes as very unimportant reasons for hiring older workers. They’re not viewed as positives; they’re often viewed as negatives. The loyalty argument can also suggest to employers that older workers are set in their ways and resistant to change. So loyalty and reliability have negative connotations.
Some older workers worry about losing their jobs because they’re the highest paid and have the most expensive benefits. And employers often do fire them when they need to reduce headcount. Is this age discrimination?
Employers making judgments around cost reduction might target older people not because they happen to be older, but because they are paid more.
There are moves in some workplaces towards flatter wage structures, so you don’t automatically get year-to-year pay increases. That is a challenge for businesses and one that needs to be looked at.
What could employers be doing differently?
Some older workers are stepping back and downshifting; that might mean a win/win. We need to look at these sorts of options for retaining older workers.
Employers need to look at retooling workers over their working life. Older workers aren’t getting training as they age and then employers say their skill sets are outdated. In most nations, we still tend to view training as something that happens to you when you’re young.
People talk about lifelong learning; we need to make it a reality, so that when you hit your fifties or sixties you don’t have outdated skills.