The number of older workers in the United States is on the rise. The projection is that, by 2019, more than 40 percent of U.S. Americans over the age of 55 will be employed. This percentage represents more than one fourth of the workforce. Mature workers today tend to be more active than their predecessors. They are healthier, and they often bring with them a wealth of knowledge and experience. And yet, according to a 2013 study by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), these highly-skilled individuals are far more likely to experience age-related job discrimination than their younger counterparts.
According to a recent report by the Society for Human Resource Management Foundation, ageism, or discrimination based on someone’s age and not objective performance criteria, still prevails in the workplace. In fact, it happens far more than sexism or racism. Data also shows that age discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have increased dramatically in recent years. To this point, between 1997 and 2007, 16,000 to 19,000 annual complaints were filed, compared to 20,000 to 25,000 filings per year since 2008. Age discrimination makes up more than 1 in 5 of the discrimination charges received by the EEOC.
Age discrimination in employment is a real and serious problem despite the fact that the United States has some of the strongest anti-discrimination laws and enforcement. The 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act does prohibit employment discrimination against individuals who are 40 or older.
The reality, however, shows us a very different picture. While we do have laws in place to protect older workers from harassment and discrimination in all aspects of employment, such as hiring, firing, training and promotions, the AARP confirms that such cases are extremely hard to prove. Age discrimination tends to be seen by the courts as a financial strategy and not an act of discrimination, per se. In other words, an employer can fire older employees and justify the action as a cost-saving measure. Yet, the same claim would not be tolerated if the employer fired several women under the same assertion.
The fact remains that it is easier to discriminate against older workers because proving this type of discrimination requires a higher standard of proof than that required in cases of race, religion, or gender workplace discrimination. In fact, a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling made it harder for older workers who have experienced proven age discrimination to prevail in court since plaintiffs must meet a higher burden of proof for age discrimination than for other types of discrimination. This decision sends the message to employers that at least some amount of discrimination is still legally acceptable. The fact remains that age discrimination is still a tolerable ‘ism’ in the workplace.
While some companies believe older employees provide a competitive advantage, most still cling to outdated stereotypes, according to Ruth Finkelstein, associate director of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center. The most common stereotypes of older workers include: slow learners, lag in technology, and more expensive to insure. Finkelstein contends that this notion that older workers are more expensive to employers is unfounded considering that, if given a chance, many no longer want to work full time. Savvy companies that allow for phased retirement, coupled with job sharing, get the benefit of the wealth of knowledge and experience older workers provide without any increased cost. Furthermore, the notion that older workers are more expensive to insure is unfounded since Medicare becomes the primary payer, and the employer becomes the secondary payer.
Age discrimination in hiring is even harder to prove, which likely accounts for the high number of older workers who are long-term unemployed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly half of all those who have been out of a job for more than six months are over 50. After losing jobs, many older workers remain unemployed so long that they become discouraged enough to leave the workforce. In other words, they are forced into early retirement. AARP data shows that, as of January 2014, job seekers age 55 and older were unemployed for about 44 weeks on average, about three months longer than their younger counterparts. When older workers do land a new job, it’s often for less money. Among older workers surveyed by the AARP, not getting hired is the most common type of age discrimination they experienced.
Throw gender into the mixture and the situation becomes far more discouraging. Age discrimination in hiring is even worse for women, which has serious consequences for their retirement security. In a study conducted by David Neumark, Ian Burn, and Patrick Button, titled “Age Discriminations and the Hiring of Older Workers,” the authors found that “the call-back rate — the rate by which employers contact candidates for interviews — drops from young applicants to middle-aged applicants and drops further from middle-aged applicants to older applicants.” They also found that the results were worse for older women than for older men. For women, “the call-back rates dropped by around a quarter when you go from the young group to the middle-aged group. And they drop by another quarter when you go from the middle-aged group to around age 65.”
For decades, sociologists have indeed confirmed that older women do experience more discrimination than older men. There are two possible explanations for that: First, as a society, we seem to be more fixated on the importance of physical appearance for women. Second, the effects of aging on physical appearance are evaluated more harshly for women than for men. Add to that the fact that, on average, women live longer than men, and one can easily see the deep impact of discrimination on a woman’s quality of life as she ages.
Strategies for creating an age-friendly workplace
While we do need stronger civil rights protection for older workers, here are some strategies companies can adopt to create an age-friendly workplace:
- Challenge the myths and inaccurate stereotypes that hinder older workers’ abilities to contribute. Age is not a reliable indicator when judging a worker’s potential productivity or employability. In fact, an AARP study showed that workers age 50 and up are among the most engaged members of the workforce. They also offer employers lower turnover rates and greater levels of experience.
- Capitalize on your older workers’ expertise. Before you start planning for their exit from the company, find ways to harness their productivity and wealth of expertise. If you don’t do that, you will be missing out on a great opportunity for your company.
- Increase opportunities for intergenerational teams. A number of studies have shown that exposing young individuals to older workers can diminish implicit bias of older adults and change younger people’s perceptions about aging.
- Abolish mandatory retirement ages. Offer, instead, a phased retirement program that allows employees to gradually exit the workplace by reducing their hours.
- Audit you company’s policies and address any inequities you see in place. We need to create an inclusive environment and continue to invest in all employees, regardless of where they are in their careers. This will only strengthen your workplace.
- Make sure training and development opportunities are offered to all employees, regardless of age. If you send younger employees to conferences or training events, the same needs to be done for your older employees. Why? Because there’s always something new to learn.
- See that the employee handbook includes an age discrimination policy. Often, employee handbooks contain policies against sexual harassment or other forms of discrimination, but not on age discrimination. Include the steps employees should take if they feel they have been discriminated against. Explain the policy to all employees and make sure all managers understand it.
- Ensure flexible policies are in place and that they apply to all employees. For example, if you allow younger employees to leave early to attend a school event, you must do the same when an older employee asks to leave to meet other family commitments.
- Address any microaggressions you see taking place. If you notice someone making frequent comments about someone’s age, no matter how lighthearted they seem to be, take the employee aside and let them know that this is not an acceptable practice in the workplace. This would be a good opportunity for you to review your age discrimination policy with the employee.
- Your company’s website should be welcoming for all. Whether you’re using stock photos or photos of your actual employees, make sure they reflect a diverse and inclusive workplace. If not, you could be unintentionally driving potential job applicants away.
We are living in a time where we could potentially find baby boomers, generation X, and millennials working side by side. It is imperative that we pay very close attention to the impact of age discrimination–especially since ageism in the workplace can be subtle and hard to detect. Even if not intentional, ageism has the devastating effect of driving older workers out and preventing highly qualified workers from coming in. The economic and societal impacts of ageism are also worrisome as workers live longer but feel less secure financially in retirement. In today’s economy, rare are the healthy pensions or employer-matched 401(k)s, so creating opportunities for older workers to support themselves could ease pressure on an already overburdened social safety net. The bottom line is that having an inclusive workplace with a diverse range of employees will only strengthen your business and make you a better competitor in the marketplace.