Age Discrimination Across the U.S. in the Workplace

Older Americans are delaying retirement and keeping their jobs longer, sometimes by choice, and other times, involuntarily due to financial or other strains.

Although baby boomers' expertise and dedication to their jobs make them attractive and valuable to their companies, they may fall victim to predatory supervisors or ill-intentioned employees who discriminate against them because of their age. Age discrimination can affect workers in a wide range of jobs and can be compounded by other factors such as race or gender.

So to understand the plight of older workers, we explored official data on how age discrimination affects American workers. We used the most recent reports from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and analyzed trends in workplace age discrimination charge filings.

Age Discrimination Today

Laws such as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 exist to reduce the number of cases of age discrimination and protect aging Americans against unfair and prejudicial workplace practices. Despite these regulations, age discrimination still exists in the modern workforce.

Current State of Age Discrimination

Although there were fewer age discrimination charges filed than retaliation, sex, disability, and race/color discrimination filings in 2018, age discrimination still accounted for more than 1 in 5 of all charges filed. There were 5.3 times more age discrimination charges filed than race/color discrimination charges and 5.9 times more than religious discrimination filings.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act

This type of discrimination occurs across many industries – and even high-profile companies are not immune to age discrimination complaints. In 2019, the Los Angeles Times, Google, and Ford all dealt with suits regarding the fair treatment of some of their employees.

Is Age Discrimination on the Decline?

One year can make all the difference. Except for cases involving equal pay and genetic information discrimination, the frequency of all workplace discrimination charge filings decreased from 2017 to 2018.

Recent History of Age Discrimination

There was an 8% drop in the number of age discrimination cases between 2017 and 2018. In recent years, unemployment rates have hit record lows, which means employers might be more eager to hire older workers. In fact, the unemployment rate for people aged 55 and older was just 3.1% in October of 2018, which was lower than the nationwide average of 3.9%.

Overall, the number of reported cases has fluctuated since 2000. The largest increase in the number of age discrimination filings occurred in 2008, with a nearly 29% increase in charges filed compared to the year prior. This surge coincided with the Great Recession that began in 2007, which suggests that older workers were hit harder by layoffs around this time.

What Does Age Discrimination Look Like?

Age discrimination comes in a variety of forms, sometimes appearing during the hiring process, following workers through employment, and even rearing its head through job dismissals.

Out of all individuals who filed age discrimination complaints in 2018, 55.8% were due, at least in part, to being fired unfairly.

Most Common Forms of Workplace Age Discrimination

Unethical dismissals and discharges, while down 6.4% from 2017, still accounted for the most common age discrimination complaint. The EEOC classifies some cases specifically as incidents of "forced resignation" and "involuntary retirement." Indeed, many older Americans are forced into retirement or laid off for reasons unrelated to their performance.

The data shows that age-related filings involving layoffs went down over 30% from 2017 to 2018. Layoffs are by no means a nonissue given that they hit a 10-year high in April of 2019, but they seem to impact a more widespread net of workers (not just aging Americans).

Other claims skyrocketed between 2017 and 2018, including insurance benefit charges. Issues of retirees losing insurance benefits have recently earned media coverage and seem to be a rising issue with older Americans.

Age Discrimination in America

The main concentration of states with high levels of workplace discrimination was in the South: Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Georgia. Alabama led the country in workplace discrimination cases involving ageism with 12.1 complaints filed per 100,000 residents, a likely result of the state's glaring lack of regulation.

Exploring Workplace Age Discrimination in the U.S.

Florida, Georgia, and Alabama – comprising the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals – don't extend ADEA protections to job applicants (only to those who already have jobs). Recently, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which contains parts of Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, made a similar ruling, possibly accounting for Illinois being home to the sixth-highest rate of age discrimination cases.

Meanwhile, states such as Montana, Maine, and Idaho reported fewer cases of workplace age discrimination. In the case of Idaho, for example, this may be due in part to having a younger population than some other states.

How Do These Cases End?

Over the past decade, one trend stands out: Fewer cases have resulted in a positive resolution for the individual filing the claim. EEOC figures show that in 2018, 73% of rulings in age discrimination cases decided that the complaint was deemed to have no basis or proof, or "no reasonable cause."

This represented a 21 percentage point increase in the same category from 10 years prior.

The EEOC defines the outcomes as follows:

  • Merit resolution: The outcome of the investigation is favorable to charging parties, including negotiated settlements, withdrawals with benefits, successful conciliations, and unsuccessful conciliations.
  • No reasonable cause: The investigation found there was not enough evidence to prove discrimination took place.
  • Administrative closures: The charge was closed for administrative reasons.

Workplace Age Discrimination Case Resolutions, by Year

Landmark court cases such as Villarreal v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. created more narrow definitions of what the law considers age discrimination, adding more fuel to the fight against aging workers' rights. A different outcome in such cases could have helped to lessen the pain or lasting effects of discrimination by bringing guilty parties to justice while financially compensating the victims and their families for lost wages or other losses.

In general, payouts per merit resolution have been on the rise over the last 10 years, even though the number of total payouts has declined. However, large companies continue to give significant compensation to victims of age discrimination. In 2019, Google had to pay more than $11 million to over 200 people impacted by age discrimination, which amounted to about $35,000 per plaintiff.

Protecting Hardworking Americans as They Age

It's important to know where age discrimination is most likely to take place, how common these cases are, and their typical resolutions.

This data from the EEOC allows us to see the plight that older professional Americans have faced throughout the years. While there are still large-scale cases of discrimination that achieve mass media coverage, cases of age discrimination are slowly decreasing, possibly representing a higher awareness of these issues.

Methodology

The data presented in this project are from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Enforcement and Litigation Statistics. The most recent year of data is 2018, and the data were accessed in August of 2019. Age discrimination reports fall under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).

The total number of cases was found using the "Charge Statistics (Charges filed with EEOC) FY 1997 Through FY 2018" tables. The figure calculated only reflects the total number of individual complaints filed. It is possible for one individual to report multiple types of discrimination, and those multiple reports are not included in the total figure: 1,889,631.

Per-capita calculations per state were calculated using American census population data for 2018. The calculation is as follows: (Total number of discrimination reports per state/State population)*100,000.

We found the average monetary benefit per case by dividing the number of merit resolutions in age discrimination filings with the total amount of monetary benefits paid out by year.

Limitations

The data presented here were not statistically tested nor weighted. Additionally, where noted, the data does not reflect any charges filed with local municipalities.

Fair Use Statement

Age discrimination affects many Americans, many who are still working or nearing retirement, so please tell your friends and loved ones about our findings. But make sure to only share this data for noncommercial use and to link back to this page when citing our research.