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The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 prohibits employers from displaying bias against most applicants and employees 40 or older with regard to hiring and firing, promotions, compensation, or terms and conditions of employment.

Despite this law being on the books for more than half a century, today’s older workers still face bias and discrimination. Examples range from coworkers cracking seemingly benign jokes about aging (think, “okay, boomer”) to superiors unethically and illegally refusing to promote a qualified employee simply because of their age. That’s no joke.

The cost of age discrimination is steep and growing steeper. An AARP study released in 2020 pegged the cost of bias against older workers (in this case, someone 50 or older) at $850 billion in gross domestic product during 2018 alone. The study projected this practice, left unabated, could cost the US economy nearly $4 trillion by 2050.

To learn how common age discrimination is in America’s workplaces, SeniorLiving.org surveyed more than 1,100 US adults 40 and older. We asked if they had experienced age-related discrimination at work, what type, and how it may have impacted their job. We also collected other data including company size, industry, tenure, and confidence in one’s ability to find another job. We extrapolated our results to get a sense of the scale and effects of the age discrimination scourge across the nation.

The Scope of Age Discrimination

Our research indicates that about one in five workers 40 and older has experienced age-related discrimination. This includes 21 percent of male respondents and 19 percent of female respondents. Along generational lines, those older than 60 were more likely to say they’d experienced age-related discrimination at work (24 percent) than those ages 40-60 (18 percent).

Based on the respective percentage of people in these age brackets who are employed and their overall numbers in the general population, nearly 18 million Americans over 40 have experienced workplace bias because of their age.

Across industries, workers in business fields like marketing, finance, accounting, etc., had the highest reported rate of age discrimination.

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What Does Age Discrimination Look Like?

I mentioned some of the ways workplace discrimination can manifest itself earlier. Survey respondents who had experienced discrimination reported two actions at roughly the same rate: being passed up for job opportunities (45 percent) and being overlooked for raises and promotions (43 percent).

Some notable differences emerged along generational lines, with younger people (ages 40-60) being more likely to say they’d experienced unwanted jokes about their age.

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Tenure, Engagement, and Company Size

Tenure appears to be a factor in that people who have been at their jobs between one and five years are most likely to say they’ve experienced age discrimination.

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If companies have the option of hiring an employee 40+ or someone younger, is there a potential difference in level of engagement? We asked older workers how engaged they are at work. Nearly 60 percent said that they were “very engaged” and 28 percent said “somewhat engaged,” which indicates a labor pool that is very eager to contribute.

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Our research also indicates that mid-sized businesses could benefit the most from training and additional scrutiny with regard to age discrimination. While we uncovered discrimination in businesses of all sizes, those with 10-99 employees had the highest rate (26 percent). Notably, larger companies with 100+ employees had the lowest reported rate (18 percent). Businesses with fewer than 10 employees reported 22 percent.

Changing the Situation

More than 70 percent of our survey participants over 60 years old believed their age would be a hurdle to getting a new job if they were in the market. Even among younger workers 40-44, nearly one in four shared this concern.

When we included the responses of those who had not experienced age-related workplace bias, in total we found 47 percent of women and 40 percent of men say their age could keep them from getting a job in the future. It’s not surprising, then, that 73 percent of employees 60 and under favor stronger laws prohibiting age discrimination.

A bill that passed the US House of Representatives this year with limited bipartisan support, the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (POWADA), would restore some of the protections workers previously enjoyed in civil cases alleging age discrimination. A US Supreme Court decision in 2009 ruled that workers must prove their age was a decisive factor in an employer’s action, and POWADA would revert to the previous standard, which required workers to prove that their age was a factor, not necessarily the deciding factor.

Despite the current limitations on age-discrimination lawsuits, there have been several successful high-profile age discrimination cases in the recent past. For example, The Los Angeles Times paid more than $15 million in damages to a former sports columnist who was demoted because of an age-related health issue, and Google settled a class-action suit claiming the company engaged in discrimination against employees over 40.

What can we learn from all this? Business and government leaders would do well to consider the demographic trends in the US. In just two years, it’s expected one in four US workers will be 55 or older. That prediction was made before the coronavirus pandemic roiled the job market, and it’s quite possible COVID-19 will make it more difficult for workers over 60, who are at high risk of serious illness from the virus, to return to their jobs.

But on the positive side, we may see new, perhaps unconventional, in-demand jobs for this large, engaged labor force.

Jeff Hoyt is editor-in-chief of SeniorLiving.org.

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