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The Problem With Job Boards for Older Job Seekers

An investigation looks into subtle age discrimination at their portals

By Chris Farrell

A dream of mine is that the day will come when I no longer get emails like this one I received from a sixtysomething reader:

I was laid off in mid Jan 2017… I need and want to work. I am healthy and available now... BTW, a lot of jobs that I qualify for require me to fill out an application that requires me giving the year I graduated from college.... As soon as a candidate gives the year they graduated from college, the HR reviewer trashes their application because age discrimination is practiced daily. It is a real shame. 

A core theme of my Next Avenue columns is that there are multiple benefits from older Americans staying employed well into the traditional retirement years, usually through part-time work, flexible jobs and self-employment. Work offers a routine and purpose. The workplace is a community. A paycheck boosts household finances. Instead of weighing down the economy in coming decades (the conventional wisdom), engaged older Americans will add to its dynamism and creativity.

Why Older Job Seekers Are Spurned

Sad to say, like my email correspondent, far too many older adults don’t get the opportunity to contribute their talents and skills on the job. They’re spurned by employers who can’t see past their age. You know the stereotypical prejudices: Older workers can’t keep up in a 24/7 business environment… Older workers are set in their ways… They aren’t productive… They’ll leave soon… They can’t keep up with technology.

“The older job seeker is the last group where it’s culturally acceptable to be biased against,” says David DeLong, president of Smart Workforce Strategies, a consulting firm based in Concord, Mass. “Not legally acceptable. But it’s a widespread position.”

An Investigation Into Job Boards

At the American Society on Aging’s annual Aging in America conference I attended in Chicago last month, a telling sign of workplace ageism repeatedly came up during corridor conversations: Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s March 2 letter warning six major job search portals that potential age discrimination in their menu options could prevent older workers from creating accurate resumés and profiles. The portals she contacted: Monster, Indeed, CareerBuilder, Vault, Beyond and TheLadders.

Madigan began snooping into this after a 70-year-old man told her office that he couldn’t use a resumé-building tool on Monster’s JOBR app because its drop-down menu required choosing your year of college graduation or first job and the dates stopped at 1980. (That would effectively rule out people over 52.) Other sites used dates ranging from 1950 to 1970 as cutoffs to apply for available positions.

“Today’s workforce includes many people working in their 70s and 80s,” Madigan said. “Barring older people from commonly used job search sites because of their age is discriminatory and negatively impacts our economy.”

NPR’s Ina Jaffe just did a superb job delving into the complaint and the job post aggregators’ responses — Monster had no comment; CareerBuilder and Beyond said they’ve corrected this; TheLadders said it doesn’t have such cutoffs; Indeed said its drop-down dates go back to 1900 and Vault couldn’t be reached. You can read and listen to Jaffe’s piece here.

Algorithms and Age Discrimination

From a public policy perspective, vigilance against code-endorsed discrimination — including age discrimination — is critical, considering the rise of algorithms in the job placement market.

“Algorithms are, in part, our opinions embedded in code,’ wrote Gideon Mann, head of data science at Bloomberg and Cathy O’Neil, founder of ORCAA, a risk consulting and algorithmic auditing firm, in the Harvard Business Review. “They reflect human biases and prejudices that lead to machine learning mistakes and misinterpretations,” they add, including bias based on age.

A Better Way to Find Work

From the point of view of the older job seeker, however, the evidence strongly suggests: Don’t waste your time on the big job-market portals.

“It’s such a low probability event getting hired through a portal,” says Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a 2015 Next Avenue Influencer In Aging, “Increasingly, the evidence is it’s not the way to go for anyone.” DeLong agrees, saying: “The job seeker might as well buy a lottery ticket.”


Fact is, these days, older workers typically get jobs by tapping into their most valuable asset — their network. Yes, technology makes it easier to find connections, including online networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook that offer older job seekers a convenient way to find friends, colleagues and other contacts who might help them get hired.

But you still want to get out and talk to people directly. “Go do the traditional kind of things,” says Helen Dennis, a 2016 Next Avenue Influencer in Aging and co-founder of Project Renewment, a movement of career women defining their next chapters in life. “Networking works. Showing up at events works. Meeting people one-on-one works. If the online platforms rule you out, go to where the opportunities are.”

Scholarly research backs her insight. Take the recent study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In “How Do People Find Jobs?” economists R. Jason Faberman, Andreas I. Mueller, Ayşegül Şahin, Rachel Schuh, and Giorgio Topa emphasized the importance of informal contacts, including “networking at industry events; conversations with friends, present or former coworkers, or business associates; and unsolicited contacts by employers, recruiters, or headhunters.”

Similarly, a research report by the late Kenneth Arrow of Stanford University and Ron Borzekowski, then with the Federal Reserve Board (and now with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) said “50 percent of all jobs are obtained through informal channels: i.e. connections to family or friends.” Their research underlined that the more connections people develop over the years, the more they’ll earn and the greater their job opportunities.

How Networking Plays to the 50+ Advantage

To be sure, studies like these don’t focus exclusively on older workers. My best guess, however, is that the networking effect is greatest the longer you’ve been in the workforce. By definition, you’ve accumulated connections over the years.

The fight against age discrimination among management and coders is an ongoing battle. Ageism is wrong and unacceptable. In the meantime, the clear message from job experts is that older workers need to nurture their networks and connections.

Certainly, the economy has taken a turn in favor of job seekers lately. Noticed how many help-wanted signs are springing up? And according to government figures released Friday, the jobless rate for workers age 55 and older now stands at just 3.4 percent, well below the overall unemployment rate of 4.5 percent.

If you’re thinking about looking for work, now is an opportune time to tap into your network to find your next gig.

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Photograph of Chris Farrell
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media's Marketplace. An award-winning journalist, he is author of the books "Purpose and a Paycheck:  Finding Meaning, Money and Happiness in the Second Half of Life" and "Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community and the Good Life." Read More
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