Ageism in America: Discrimination at work

Two out of three older workers report ageism at the office. Learn why, and what you can do to combat discrimination.

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A few weeks back, a friend confessed he was worried about finding work after he turns 50. His admission came shortly after a forty-something 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 and jobs in fields dominated by younger and younger coworkers. The situation was only exacerbated by the Recession of 2008, during which many older workers found 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 and author of Getting the Job You Want After 50. “And you don’t need to sugarcoat that.”

Just the facts

“Ageism begins during the job search. While the current unemployment rate for people 45 and over is comparatively low—about 3.0 to 3.2 percent versus 4.0 percent nationally—older workers are at a disadvantage when looking for new gigs. They take longer to find work and make up about 66 percent of the long-term unemployed (27 weeks+). When they are hired, it’s frequently in occupations different from their previous jobs, and they often settle for less money—especially if they’ve been out of work for an extended period.

Ageism plays a major role in this. In a 2014 survey of about 2,500 older workers who had 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. In 2015, for example, 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 2 in 3 workers between 45 and 74 have experienced it at work, according to AARP. Most believe ageism starts in their 50s, though research suggests it actually begins around 35. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 was supposed to address this unfairness, and as recently as 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, cases almost never see the inside of the courtroom. “Discrimination claims are difficult,” says Behren. “There’s usually a harder standard of proof.”

Why it 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, for example, found that negative stereotypes associated with older workers—including low energy levels, more health problems, extra family commitments, and resistance to change—are totally unfounded. Another 2015 AARP report discovered 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 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.” Hannon says it’s not necessary to run marathons, but an exercise program is a good idea. “People judge a book by its cover, and it’s critical. 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.” Don’t ignore developments, either. “When a job has a certain requirement, and says you need a certain certification in a certain area, go get it.”
  • 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.”

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.” Keep in mind, too, that coworkers may follow your lead when it comes to comments on age, and you could be unintentionally giving them the green light. “Be very careful talking about the old days, or that your knees are creaky,” she says. “I encourage people not to say anything age-related.”

If it’s something more than inconsiderate remarks—you’re passed over for promotions or unnecessarily disciplined—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 harder to prove. “In my experience, most employers aren’t going to say we’re disciplining or firing you because of your age. Generally they’ll come up with other reasons, like performance issues.” 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.

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