Age discrimination is a harmful yet often overlooked practice in the workplace. The EEOC report, “The State of Age Discrimination and Older Workers in the U.S. 50 Years After the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA),” sheds light on this problem by consolidating data on the aging workforce, unemployment rates, societal views, and employment practices. Before reviewing this data, it is important to define age discrimination and rights under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The EEOC states that “Age discrimination involves treating an applicant or employee less favorably because of his or her age,” but explains that ADEA only prohibits age discrimination against people who are age 40 or older (although some states have statutes that protect younger workers). Furthermore, employers may legally favor an older employee over a younger one, even if both workers are age 40 or older, according to the ADEA. Although the one sidedness of this legislation may raise concern, research demonstrates that older employees tend to be disfavored. The following list includes key findings cited in the EEOC report.
- The United States has an older workforce than ever before.
- Most people hold negative but largely inaccurate beliefs about aging.
- In a 2017 survey, six in ten workers age 45 and up stated that they have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace.
- In a 2015 survey, three out of four respondents stated that age was an obstacle to finding employment.
- 70% of older workers on IT staffs report having witnessed or experienced age discrimination.
- 77% of African American/Black respondents report having experienced age discrimination or knowing someone who had. (Compared to 61% of Hispanic/Latino respondents and 59% of White respondents)
- A 2015 study involving over 40,000 applications for over 13,000 jobs found that applicants in the age range of 64 to 66 years old were more frequently denied an interview than middle-age applicants.
Despite findings that confirm the prevalence of age discrimination, it is an issue that is often minimized and justified by society. It is a common belief that age discrimination is different from discrimination based on race or sex because everyone experiences getting older, and age stereotypes are not based on a history of discrimination and prejudice. The EEOC report argues that age discrimination is more like, than different from, other forms of discrimination, stating, “…all employment discrimination shares prejudices about the competence of members of the protected group.” No matter the origin, all discrimination is harmful to victims and limits their ability to reach their fullest potential. Age discrimination is harmful and must be stopped.
Identifying age discrimination is difficult because it is often a covert practice. It is unlikely that employers will directly state that they are firing an employee or refusing to hire an applicant because they are too old. The Forbes Article, “EEOC Releases New Details on Systemic Age Discrimination: What You Can Do,” highlights signs of age discrimination in the recruiting and hiring process. Recruiting materials that use terms such as young, energetic, recent graduate, or other descriptions alluding to age may be discriminatory. Being asked your age or graduation date, being told the position requires a degree when you successfully held the same position at another company, being required to get a physical when other applicants aren’t, and being asked why you are looking for a job at your age are all warning signs of discriminatory hiring practices. In addition to refusing to hire older employees, many employers kick out older employees through demeaning and manipulative practices.
The article, “The Most Insidious Form of Age Discrimination at Work,” written by Patti Temple Rocks and published by Forbes, illustrates the use of marginalization to push out older employees. This process relies on demoralizing tactics such as assigning older employees lower level tasks or excluding them from their typical roles. For example, victims are often left out of meetings, leaving them out of the loop and unable to contribute. When they are finally asked to contribute, they may not perform at their previous level, not because they are old, but because they had been left out for so long. This, in turn, is used to justify a poor performance review. Marginalization causes victims to doubt their abilities and to feel as if they are no longer valuable members of their organization. This often causes them to leave without ever being fired. When employees quit due to marginalization, employers get what they want. Not only do they not have to pay severance to the ex-employee, they successfully mask age discrimination as the victim’s personal choice. Marginalization is, indeed, an insidious and cruel form of age discrimination.
Given the covert nature of age discrimination, along with societal attitudes that diminish its severity, it is not surprising that it is often left unaddressed. The SHRM article, “Discrimination Against Older Workers May Be Common but Hard to Prove,” cites the fact that age discrimination was alleged in 23% of all charges filed with the EEOC in fiscal year 2016 but only accounted for 2% of the cases that EEOC lawyers determined had enough evidence to file a lawsuit! This is, in part, due to a 2009 Supreme Court ruling that plaintiffs in age discrimination hearings must demonstrate that age was the primary reason for an employer’s adverse action, not simply a contributing factor. Some argue that this is an unfair burden of proof, but it remains in effect despite congressional efforts to overturn the decision.
Employers have the obligation to quell age discrimination against potential and existing employees. The aforementioned SHRM article offers many helpful guidelines, summarized below:
- Use inclusive recruitment materials that allude to competent candidates of all ages (and other identities).
- Recruit in a variety of settings as opposed to solely relying on college fairs.
- Avoid descriptions of desired candidates that allude to age, such as, young, recent graduate, or digital native.
- Don’t ask applicants to provide their age or graduation date.
- Don’t use interview questions that are targeted to specific age groups
- Balance benefits so that they are not unevenly applied to members of a specific age group. (Ex: Offer time off for childcare and elder care.)
- Reflect on your attitudes and implicit biases about older employees.
The EEOC report, “The State of Age Discrimination and Older Workers in the U.S. 50 Years After the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA),” also provides excellent strategies for preventing age discrimination in the workplace:
- Expand diversity and inclusion practices to include age diversity.
- Assess interviewing and recruitment strategies to avoid ageist tendencies.
- Create a workplace culture that respects all employees and rejects stereotypes and biases.
- Train those involved in the recruitment and hiring process to avoid ageist assumptions.
- Use retention strategies that appeal to employees of all ages.
In short, some corporate cultures minimize, overlook, and even justify age discrimination due to harmful stereotypes and implicit biases that harm one’s perception of older employees. Despite ADEA having been passed over 50 years ago, age discrimination continues to surface in the workplace. Along with a need to gain a greater understanding of this issue, it is our legal and ethical obligation to combat age discrimination through changes in workplace culture and policies.