The Stubborn Problem of Ageism in Hiring

When older adults expect to encounter age discrimination, it can set off a cycle that leads to long-term unemployment.

As traditional pensions disappear and lifespans get longer, older Americans are worried about not being able to retire, or burning through their 401(k)s to make ends meet. More people 65 and over are continuing to work: 18.8 percent, as opposed to 12.8 percent in 2000. Given the size of the Baby Boomer generation, that’s a lot of people (almost 9 million), and the number will likely keep growing.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 prohibits employment discrimination based on age for people 40 and older. But that hasn’t stopped it from becoming pervasive. Nearly two-thirds of workers aged 45 to 74 say they have experienced age discrimination in the workplace, according to a study by AARP, and 92 percent of those who did said it was common. And bad news, Millennials: One expert believes it can kick in as young as 35

large-scale study found that younger job applicants were much more likely to get a callback than people in their mid-60s with similar experience, and that discrimination against older women, particularly, is rampant. Employers value older workers’ knowledge, but may view them as less flexible, less willing to learn new things, and expensive, compared to younger candidates.

While widespread, ageism in hiring is not always a matter of simple or overt prejudice. The combination of employers’ and some older job seekers’ habits can be to blame. Jacquelyn B. James, co-director for the Center on Aging and Work at Boston College, says that the “new reality and implications” of people living longer haven’t caught up with employers and workers yet.

“It’s very easy to reduce this to ageism or ‘all employers are bad,’ but it’s not that simple,” James says. “It’s a combination of actions of the older adults and the way that they keep at it, and for employers, being able to convince them that they need to take a different look at the kind of people they’re seeking to employ.”

If older adults expect to encounter age discrimination—a realistic attitude, unfortunately—this can also leave them feeling defeated, setting off a vicious circle that results in long-term unemployment. “When older adults expect age discrimination, that affects intensity of their job search [and] confidence in their ability to get a job, which in turn makes it hard for them to get a job. … It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” James says. Older adults need to be rigorous in their job hunt, she says, submitting applications cold and networking with people in their industry.

Many companies say they want to hire older workers, but sometimes the language they use suggests otherwise. Laurie McCann, an attorney for AARP, told officials at a May 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hearing on diversity in the tech industry that job posts and applications are often riddled with age prejudice.

Companies include phrases like “new or recent graduates” or even a graduating year preference in their job posts. Some seek applicants who are “digital natives,” a category that excludes anyone over 50.

AARP has developed a series of initiatives to counter the problem, including virtual job fairs, a learning center where older adults can understand their digital skill sets, and online videos that teach the basics of software programs and tech terms. Jean Setzfand, the senior vice president of programs at AARP, says the job hunting process can be daunting for someone who has not had to look for work in the past five years. Navigating digital applications and job banks, using social media, and networking in new ways can be a learning curve.  

Companies are taking “more of a cookie cutter approach,” she says, when they should be intentional about recruiting older adults. That means posting jobs where older adults will see them (like LinkedIn, where older adults are well represented); being mindful of potential ageist wording in job posts; and ensuring that photos in their recruitment materials show age diversity.

“What we want to do is for people to have non-intimidating interactions, and get them down the path of exploring, so they’re not intimidated by any device, platform, or software,” Setzfand says.

Hirers shouldn’t write off the technology know-how of older workers, but at the same time, it can be problematic when they assume a level of familiarity that applicants don’t possess. In an interview, “[employers] are not going to say, ‘How good are you at internet searching?’” says Laurie Orlov, principal analyst for the market research firm Aging in Place Technology Watch. “They’re not going to say, ‘How good are you at teleconference tools?’ They’re just not going to do it.” She advises job seekers or new hires in this situation to find someone who works at the company and ask them about the tech skills the job would require, and learn them if they haven’t already.

Part of the problem, Orlov says, is the tech industry’s longstanding neglect of older adults. Tech companies are constantly launching new devices and user experiences, but “not helping people with staying current,” she says. That forces everyone to scramble to keep up—or fall behind.