Age Discrimination: The Hows and the Whys!

Image credit: woodlywonderworks / CC BY 2.0

By: Marie Donlon

Think we have become more evolved as a society and that age discrimination won’t happen to you? Think again….

No matter how old you are in this moment, you will, most likely, get older. And age discrimination in the workplace is more common, according to a handful of studies, than all of the other discriminations combined. More than race, more than gender, more than religion….

As retirement ages are extended and recent economic downturns have forced Baby Boomers to postpone retirement, the matter is significant. Consequently, there have been a number of studies to demonstrate how prevalent age discrimination is in the work place.

A number of studies, both domestic and international, have been testing employers by sending out fictitious job applications for a wide-ranging number of positions. In their studies, researchers included information that hinted at the applicants’ ages.

In one study from Tulane University and the University of California at Irvine that sent out 4,000 fictitious applications, researchers found that:

  • Callbacks for applicants after the age of 40 declined dramatically.
  • Workers in the 64 and over category had callback rates that were nearly 47 percent lower than the callback rates for younger workers.
  • Older women experienced the lowest callback rates across all studies.

How Employers Discriminate

If age is among the characteristics protected from discrimination, how are employers able to discriminate without the notice of the federal government?

An alert employer will notice simple revealing details about an applicant’s age from their resume. For instance, an employer might not call an applicant whose high school or college graduation dates happened around, let’s say, the bicentennial. Employment history can also offer rough clues about the age of an applicant. In other words: all of the required information on your resume may also serve to work against you.

Another way that employers are able to avoid hiring older employees is by prepopulating fields for online applications. If an employer graduated from high school in 1960, but the only options available in the graduation year field date back to 1965, an applicant might be discouraged from completing the application. Or even still, because this is typically a required field, an applicant may not be able to complete the application at all, thereby removing them entirely from consideration.

Why Discriminate?

There are a number of misconceptions about mature workers that employers should avoid but often don’t. According to HR experts, most employers fear that hiring someone with considerable experience means that they will have to pay that candidate significantly more than a younger candidate. According to studies, hiring a younger, less experienced candidate is encouraged because it is an automatic cost-savings for the company.

Another misconception about the mature worker is that they might be resistant to change. With technology being what it is, workers are often exposed to constantly-changing software and systems. Employers often believe, according to research, that mature employees resist the change because they can’t keep up with it.

Another factor that prevents employers from hiring the mature employee is an assumption about how much time that person plans to remain in the work force. True, a person approaching 90 may not have much time left behind a desk, but people looking for work in their 60s—in some cases, as a second career after retirement—may plan on being employed for several years. People may experience setbacks in retirement, such as struggling with unexpected financial burdens, or long for the days of structure and purpose. Because of this, many people return to the work force after retiring.

What Can Be Done?

It is extremely difficult to prove that you have been discriminated against without physical evidence. Some things to keep in mind:

Pay attention to the details. Are you applying for a job that has physical prerequisites that don’t exactly match the job functions (unaided vision requirements for an office manager position, for instance)? That alone could be grounds for a claim. But again, it is very difficult to prove.

Some senior citizens groups recommend that applicants remove earlier blocks of work history from their resumes as not to call attention to their mature work history.

Say you were able to snag an interview despite the age reflected by your work history. Keep an ear out for language concerning your energy levels and stamina. These are keywords that possibly hint at your waning desirability as an employee.

Despite the number of protections in place, older people in the work force continue to be plagued by discrimination issues. Whatever the reason keeping a person in the work force beyond a certain age, be it financial or personal, there are workers being overlooked that could bring both experience and maturity to a position.

Resources—3 Ways to Prove you Weren’t Hired Due to Age Discrimination

Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco—Age Discrimination and Hiring of Older Workers

Forbes—The Ugly Truth About Age Discrimination

Time—Age Discrimination and Lost Income Are Hurting Older Workers