Age discrimination is a lightning rod of a topic. Ageism quite real, and it can serve as an invisible barrier to being considered for a job to anyone over 40 years of age.
The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission’s (EEOC) 2018 report, The State of Age Discrimination and Older Workers in the U.S., concludes that, “After 50 years of a federal law whose purpose is to promote the employment of older workers based on ability, age discrimination remains too common and too accepted.”
DATA TO CONSIDER
We all want very experienced people when our lives are on the line (doctors, pilots, firefighters, etc.) or to design and build items that aren’t going to fall on our heads or explode (engineers, contractors, rocket scientists, etc.), but to older workers searching for a job ageism can seem like a pervasive, guiding principal of the labor market. Consider the following:
The Wirtz Report, the study that led to the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), concluded the primary reason for age discrimination was, “unfounded assumptions about ability.” This perception can be just as strong today as it was in 1967, maybe even more so given the dizzying pace of contemporary technological changes and “start-up” culture, which can be translated as youth culture (EEOC).
According to the AARP, “Two out of three workers between ages 45 and 74 say they have seen or experienced age discrimination at work, and job seekers over age 35 cite it as a top obstacle to getting hired. And if you happen to work in the high-tech or entertainment industries, your chances of experiencing age discrimination are even higher” (AARP).
“From 1992 to 2016, 56 percent of older workers are either laid off at least once, or leave jobs under such financially damaging circumstances that it's likely they were pushed out rather than left voluntarily.” Of that 56%, 9 out of 10 workers never reach their previous earning power, or become unsuspecting new members of the “Gig Economy” (Urban Institute & ProPublica).
Multiple studies from the last five years reveal the majority of workers believe age discrimination is “common”, and have seen or experienced it first-hand. Rates are higher for certain demographics, women, and those employed in information technology (EEOC).
After being sued by unions and civil rights groups, Facebook recently agreed to eliminate targeted job advertisements that screened out certain categories of job seekers, including older workers (NY Times).
Over the last twenty years (1998-2018), 18% - 26% of complaints filed with the EEOC alleged age discrimination. That was roughly 1 in 5 complaints (EEOC).
Since a 2009 Supreme Court ruling created a higher burden of proof to prove age discrimination than other forms of discrimination (sex, religion, race), the EEOC pursued a smaller percentage of age discrimination cases (SHRM.org).
Proving age discrimination is difficult and costly, and since many of those affected have been thrust into financially precarious positions, the likelihood of a legal fight has decreased to levels too low to be an effective deterrent (New York Times).
THE GRAYING OF THE U.S. WORK FORCE
Workers over 65 years of age are projected to be the largest growing sector of the labor market through 2050 (EEOC). Additionally, a perfect storm of demographics, societal shifts, and historical events over the last twenty-five years impacted, and continue to impact, older workers in ways that could not be anticipated at the time of the Wirtz Report. The resulting landscape for older workers is a hyper competitive labor market in which they are battling the same ageist perceptions, competing with younger workers, and competing with more workers their own age that cannot leave or must re-enter the workforce.
Not only are older workers generally healthier and have longer life expectancies than previous generations, this directly translates into an increase in older workers who will remain in the workforce longer (The ADEA @ 50). Changes in Social Security benefits have resulted in increases in the “full retirement age” to collect benefits, meaning older workers must stay in the workforce longer before they are eligible to receive full benefits (Congress.gov). Additionally, traditional pension plans and other employer driven retirement plans are declining rapidly, shifting the responsibility for retirement to individuals and reducing retirement income (EEOC). This combined with many individuals impacted by the Great Recession, resulted in an increase in older workers remaining in the workforce longer (EEOC).
BATTLING FALSE PERCEPTIONS
At the same time, older workers and employers battle the same false perceptions, just from opposing points of view. Older workers need to be aware of the extra obstacles they face, know their rights, and learn how to shuffle a stacked deck. Here are some of those perceptions, and some tactics for older workers to negate them and effectively compete for jobs:
Perception: In salary and benefits, older workers cost a company significantly more than younger workers.
Reality: A 2015 study by AARP contends that, due to reward/benefit systems with a “more age neutral distribution of labor costs”, hiring workers age 50+ results in only a minimal increase in total labor costs, and that is without factoring in the true value the employee brings to the company (Aon Hewitt).
Tactic: Understand the market for your skills. Individuals who spent several years with the same company may find themselves with a pay structure that is generally higher than the market for their skill set and level, due years of compounded raises (or lower – sometimes individuals who stay in the same role don’t get raises that can come with changing roles. Use salary tools like Paysa.com to get a clear picture of the value for your skills in terms of salary in your market. This will arm you with the correct data to help you negotiate an appropriate salary. When talking to the company recruiter, try to focus on your enthusiasm for the role, and minimize the salary discussion until it makes sense to get into the weeds. By the way, don’t forget that you have value – your experiences and knowledge can clearly help an employer.
Perception: Younger workers will spend more time at a company than older workers.
Reality: In 2018, median employee tenure among workers 55 + was three times higher (10.1 years) than median employee tenure among workers 25-34 (2.8 years) (Bureau of Labor Statistics).
Tactic: If you’ve had longevity in prior roles, play this up in the interview. Make clear that you’re looking for a place to work in the long term. Don’t mention retirement; it’s important to convey that you intend to be there a while.
Perception: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Older workers are perceived to be less capable at learning and understanding new technology. As Mark Zuckerberg once said, “Young people are just smarter”.
Reality: This is simply not true. Experienced workers create a more productive workforce and excluding them in hiring and promotions has produced a major “skill gap” fueled by institutionalized bias that older workers have less to offer (Marketplace).
Tactic: Don’t get stale. Always be training to keep up on the latest technology. If you see some new tool emerge in your industry, learn it. And make abundantly clear in your resume and interview the currency of your skills.
Perception: Older workers will not be as engaged as younger workers.
Reality: Study after study rates older workers with higher levels of engagement than their younger counterparts. An AARP research study found that 65% of employees age 55+ are considered engaged based on survey data, while younger employee engagement averages 58% to 60% (Aon Hewitt).
Tactic: I’ve seen this play out many times, where hiring managers are drawn to the younger employee due to their boundless energy. You’ll need to really amp up your presentation. Sit on the edge of your chair during the interview. Smile. Be engaged, friendly, and in the moment.
Philip Roufail contributed to this article.
Scott Singer is the President and Founder of Insider Career Strategies Resume Writing & Career Coaching, a firm dedicated to guiding job seekers and companies through the job search and hiring process. Insider Career Strategies provides resume writing, LinkedIn profile development, career coaching services, and outplacement services. You can email Scott Singer at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via the website, www.insidercareerstrategies.com.