Older workers find a less tolerant workplace: Why many say age discrimination abounds

Older workers are everywhere these days. And so, it seems, is age discrimination.

Roughly two-thirds of adults over 50 believe older workers face discrimination in the workplace, according to a new AARP report. Of that group, 90% believe ageism is commonplace.

The finding, based on a series of surveys in 2022 and 2023, comes at a time when America’s labor pool is conspicuously aging. The 65-and-up workforce has quadrupled in size since the mid-1980s. Nearly one-quarter of the workforce is 55 or older.

“Ageism is really one of the last acceptable ‘isms’ that society tolerates,” said Heather Tinsley-Fix, a senior adviser at AARP. “We’re generally speaking of a society that really values youth, not only physically, but in these beliefs that everything good is young.”

Potential victims of ageism can be tricky to identify, let alone defend. Age discrimination might strike a ballplayer at 30, an actor at 40, a news anchor at 50, a law partner at 60. Federal protections kick in at 40.

In the film "All About Eve," Bette Davis portrayed a Broadway star battling ageism.

In the film “All About Eve,” Bette Davis portrayed a Broadway star battling ageism.

For an aging worker, a reversal of fortune can be swift and devastating

For the aging worker, a reversal of fortune can be swift and devastating: negative evaluations, layoff threats, buyout offers, demotions, pay cuts.

And all of this comes on the heels of peak earning years, in workers’ 40s and early 50s.

“I think we’re still combating this antiquated idea of when it’s appropriate for someone to retire and usher in the next generation,” said Maura Porcelli, senior director of the Senior Community Service Employment Program at the National Council on Aging.

“The landscape of the labor market has changed drastically,” she said, “but our attitudes have not caught up.”

Episodes of ageism can be subtle. In hiring, it might surface in a job ad that seeks “digital natives,” or in an application that asks for a graduation year.

In the office, ageism can be a younger colleague laughing off “a senior moment,” or an organizational push to promote the “next generation,” or a gradual reduction of an older worker’s duties.

“You might suddenly start to get carefully sidelined, not asked to participate in more innovative projects,” Tinsley-Fix said. “You might find yourself getting subtly cut out of those meetings. An employee who’s had a stellar record starts to get mediocre performance reviews, where nothing has changed.”

Stuart Lipper of North Plainfield, New Jersey, was cruising through his career. He worked his way up to a dream job as a business school administrator.

Lipper lost his associate dean job in a layoff in 2012, at 56. Undaunted, he went in search of a better job, as dean of students.

Stuart Lipper, 68, experienced age discrimination starting in his 50s.Stuart Lipper, 68, experienced age discrimination starting in his 50s.

Stuart Lipper, 68, experienced age discrimination starting in his 50s.

“And just nothing,” he recalled. “Crickets. … I remember this feeling of, ‘No one’s even getting back to me.’”

Lipper lowered his sights, applying for jobs with lesser titles. Still nothing. After a seemingly endless search, he landed a position at an international business school.

In 2018, at 62, Lipper was laid off again.

“I remember taking that train ride back to New Jersey and thinking to myself, ‘This might really be the end for me.’”

In a way, it was. Lipper applied near and far, even trolling for jobs he had held before. No offers came. Lipper was forced into retirement at 62. He is 68 now. He had planned to work till 70.

“If I got a phone call today to take over a graduate business program or do something exciting, I wouldn’t hesitate,” he said.

Researchers at Clemson University showed that 30 percent of people over age 53 faced some kind of discrimination due to their age.Researchers at Clemson University showed that 30 percent of people over age 53 faced some kind of discrimination due to their age.

Researchers at Clemson University showed that 30 percent of people over age 53 faced some kind of discrimination due to their age.

Half of older job seekers had to provide a birthdate on an application

The new AARP report draws on a series of surveys of over-50 Americans in 2022 and 2023 by AARP in conjunction with NORC, the research organization.

Among the findings:

Many older Americans left the workforce at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, some driven out by layoffs, others opting out over health concerns.

Employment dipped by 15%, or nearly 6 million workers, for people 55 and over in the early months of 2020, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.

Many have since returned to the workforce, but not without considerable effort. Older workers tend to stay unemployed longer than younger workers, AARP research has found.

Virtual work, which exploded during the pandemic, proved a blessing and a curse for older workers, experts say.

Working from home has been a boon to many older Americans, who find themselves liberated from arduous commutes and awkward water-cooler exchanges with younger colleagues.

Yet, in virtual work, “there’s more technology involved. And for some older workers, that alone makes them a little more uncomfortable,” said Stewart Schwab, a law professor at Cornell.

For older job applicants, ageism can lie a Zoom call away.

“I think the rise in remote interviewing has harmed older candidates,” Tinsley-Fix said. “If they haven’t been thinking of you as an older worker, and that camera goes on, a trigger goes off.”

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Here are some tips, from AARP and others, for older workers to minimize potential ageism in a job application.

Less is more

Keep your resume to two pages. It should focus on more recent experience: say, the past 10 to 15 years. And while you need to include your credentials, you don’t have to include dates in the distant past.

“We encourage older workers to really focus their résumés on the last 10 years of experience,” Porcelli said. “Because that’s really the most relevant experience that they’re bringing to the table.”

And don’t put your street address at the top. That convention is becoming archaic, AARP says, and it exposes you to potential fraud.

Ditch that AOL address

Clinging to an account on an old-school email service – no offense, AOL and Hotmail – can tag you as an old person.

Get a new one on a comparatively modern service, such as Gmail, and pick a professional-sounding handle that incorporates your name.

Bot-proof your resume

Employers use bots to scan resumes and eliminate as many as possible before they reach human hands.

To get past the robo-gatekeeper, make sure your resume includes keywords specific to your industry. If certain terms pop up again and again in the job listing, put them in your resume.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Older workers see rampant age discrimination in the office

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