Older and Out: Age Discrimination in the Workplace

We’ve witnessed the rise of civil rights, women’s rights, animal rights. Now, with a recession looming, we’re going to get nudged out of our jobs because of age discrimination? We don’t think so. MORE magazine reports.

By Amy Engeler

Women and Age Discrimination

At 52, you’re one of the oldest employees in the office and among the best paid. Your evaluations have been glowing; in fact, you just won a productivity award. Then one day you meet the new division head, who appears to be some 20 years your junior. He asks how long you’ve worked at the firm and if there’s anything you still hope to accomplish there. And are you getting enough time to visit with your grandchildren?

Your bias detector — the one you honed back when bosses still dared to call you "honey" — is twitching. And it should, because, after decades of climbing the ladder and playing the game and perhaps paying a personal price, it turns out that seniority and a big salary can endanger your job security. Especially if you’re a woman.

Age discrimination used to be more blatant than it is now. Airline "stewardesses" were forced to retire at 32. And help-wanted ads blithely sought "applicants between the ages of 25 and 35." The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), which protects the rights of workers 40 and older, helped to end the most barefaced bias. But we live in a culture where beauty is youth and change trumps experience (a culture, some would argue, that the upper tier of our own demographic helped to foster decades earlier with slogans like "Don’t trust anyone over 30"). As the massive baby boomer generation grows older, age-based complaints to the federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have increased; they’re up nearly 21 percent from 10 years ago and now comprise nearly a quarter of the commission’s workload. "People are living longer and wanting to work longer," says Elizabeth Grossman, an attorney in the EEOC’s busy New York office, "and quite a few employers resist keeping these employees on the payroll past a certain point." Or hiring them in the first place: Job candidates ages 35 to 45 were 40 percent more likely to be called for an interview than candidates with similar backgrounds — and more years of experience — who were 50-plus, according to a study published this year by Joanna Lahey, an assistant professor of economics at the Bush School at Texas A&M who specializes in age discrimination. For each decade of age, job seekers needed to apply for four and a half more positions just to get an interview.

"Search consultants have told me their clients say, ‘Don’t bring me anyone over 50,’" says Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania. "The clients don’t say why; the implicit suggestion seems to be that older workers don’t have the energy to do the job." Or that we’re inflexible, or unsociable, or unused to new technologies, or any one of a number of other maddening stereotypes. And often the bottom line is, simply, the bottom line: They think we cost too much.

"As companies want to cut back, they do that by getting rid of people who have been there for 20 to 25 years and hiring younger people for far less money," says Trish Bangert, a Denver-based attorney specializing in civil rights, constitutional law, and discrimination. And then there is that other elephant in the corner office: health insurance. "It’s not exclusive to age, but I think it’s an unspoken thing, looking at potential employees and wondering how they will impact healthcare costs," says Terri Swain, a former EEOC investigator who now does human resources consulting in Fort Worth, Texas.

Bangert began noticing an increase in age-discrimination clients about eight years ago, when the first of the boomers hit their mid 50s. Until recently, most complaints about age bias came from white male middle managers, who were "especially dumbfounded," she says, because they had never experienced discrimination before. Now older women are filing nearly as many EEOC complaints as older men. Some allege both age and sex discrimination. In these "age-plus" (or "gender-plus") cases, sex discrimination — typically in such male-dominated fields as finance and law — worsens with age. Older women, she says, "are probably the least valued persons in the workforce — after having given the most."

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