The Seniorliving.org Team | Last Updated, May 21, 2020
Workers over the age of 65 are the fastest-growing workforce segment. Older Americans are working later in life both because they are living longer and also out of necessity due to changes to retirement benefits. Unfortunately, this workforce group faces extra hurdles in securing, maintaining, and thriving in a job.
Employers use languages such as “tech-savvy” and “digital native” in job descriptions to discourage older people from applying and passing over senior workers for training and promotion opportunities. Despite legal protections, many older Americans in the workplace today have faced age discrimination.
- Seniors in the Workplace
- How Often Does Age Discrimination Happen?
- Age Discrimination in High Profile Companies
- Taking Action
- Race and Gender Play a Role in Age Discrimination
- Combating Age Discrimination
What is Age Discrimination?
Age discrimination in the workplace means treating an applicant or employee less favorably because of their age. While states vary in the level of protection they give workers, federal protections cover those over forty from discrimination through the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.1
These protections cover hiring, firing, promotions, layoffs, compensation, benefits, job assignments, and training. The law also offers protection from harassment based on a person’s age. The law provides some protection for older Americans, but age discrimination can be difficult to prove and is still a problem in many workplaces.
The most common forms of age discrimination among workers over age 40 were being passed up for raises, promotions, or other opportunities, followed by ageist jokes or bullying.2
What does age discrimination look like in the workplace?
Percentage among workers who’d reported age discrimination
|Harassment or bullying||27%|
|Passed up for raises or promotions||41%|
|Passed up for other opportunities||45%|
Source: 2020 SeniorLiving Survey
Seniors in the Workplace
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Census estimates reveal that in 2020, 19.5 percent of Americans aged 65 or older were working or looking for work.3 In 1985, only 10 percent of older Americans were in the labor force.4
However, the number of older Americans in the workforce has grown since then and is projected to continue to rise. By 2030, Americans aged 65 or older are expected to make up 9.5 percent of the entire workforce. The number of workers aged 65 or older will increase by 52 percent between 2020 and 2030.5
|Labor Force Distribution by Age|
|16 to 24||15.8%||13.6%||12.6%||11.0%|
|25 to 34||23.0%||21.8%||22.7%||21.3%|
|35 to 44||26.3%||21.7%||21.1%||22.7%|
|45 to 54||21.8%||23.4%||20.0%||19.9%|
|55 to 64||10.1%||15.1%||17.0%||15.6%|
|65 and older||3.0%||4.4%||6.6%||9.5%|
Source: Civilian labor force, by age, sex, race, and ethnicity, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
As the number of older Americans in the labor force grows in the coming decades, experts believe that the impacts of age discrimination will also increase. By 2050, the U.S. could miss out on nearly $4 trillion of economic contributions from the 50-plus population due to age discrimination.6
How Often Does Age Discrimination Happen?
Approximately 453,000 U.S. workers filed age discrimination claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) between 1997 and 2020.7 In fact, workplace age discrimination claims made up 22 percent of all claims reported to the EEOC in 2020.
In 2020, 14,183 workers filed age discrimination claims with the EEOC. These numbers represent a 39 percent decrease from 2010. Around six percent of claims filed in 2020 ended in settlements totaling $76.3 million,8 suggesting there is at least some hope for those who file legitimate age discrimination claims.
Overall, approximately one in five workers over 40 and one in four workers over age 60 have personally experienced age-related discrimination on the job.9
Another one in five workers in their 40s have witnessed age discrimination in their workplace and nearly half of workers in that age group have heard stories from colleagues who’d experienced age discrimination.10
Age discrimination keeps many people from making a living. An AARP study found that more than one in four older workers who were underemployed (for reasons besides health or family) said age discrimination was a reason for their underemployment.11
However some industries are worse than others when it comes to age discrimination. SeniorLiving researchers found that showed that 30 percent of older professionals in business, 27 percent in government, and 27 percent of older retail workers had experienced age discrimination.12
Unfortunately some older workers may not know that they are protected by age discrimination laws. Although AARP found that 69 percent of Americans ages 40–49 are aware of age discrimination laws, only 9 percent knew that those protections apply to people age 40 or older.13
Age Discrimination in the Hiring Process
Oftentimes, discrimination begins during the hiring process. In fact, only 6 percent of employers use unbiased recruitment processes when seeking new employees,14 and this can have an impact on older job seekers. Researchers in the United Kingdom found that 50-year-old job seekers are up to three times less likely to be selected for interviews than younger professionals with less experience.
Although it’s not required, many people voluntarily provide information that could be used to discriminate against them. In the job search process, 66 percent of older candidates voluntarily provided their high school or college graduation dates and 39 percent shared their age or date of birth.15
In both state and federal statutes, employers are not explicitly prohibited from making pre-employment inquiries that disproportionately impact, or exclude, candidates because of their race, color, sex, national origin, religion, or age.16 But such inquiries can be used as evidence of an employer’s discriminatory intent unless there is a relevant reason for asking them.
A study conducted in 2020 by the National Bureau of Economic Research discovered that workers aged 40 or older are about half as likely to get an offer as younger professionals if the employer knows their age.17
Race and Gender Play a Role in Age Discrimination
Researchers from Anglia Ruskin and Cyprus universities found that white men under 50 are nearly two times more likely to get an interview than those over 50.18 Although those odds aren’t great, older men and women of color are even more likely to experience age discrimination.
The same study revealed that younger white men were 2.3 times more likely to get an interview than 50-year-old white women, 2.6 times more likely than 50-year-old black men, and 3 times more likely to be selected for interviews than 50-year-old black women.
Combating Age Discrimination
Age discrimination is all too common in the United States, but employers can take preventative measures to protect everyone in their workforce, regardless of age.
More than 1,000 companies, including Ace Hardware and H&R Block, have recently pledged to provide more job opportunities for older workers and create equitable recruitment efforts to attract workers of all ages.19
In addition to making commitments like these, companies need to take decisive action to combat age discrimination. This can be done by creating accommodations to support and retain older members of their workforces. AARP researchers recently discovered that adding flexible work options could have helped 75 percent of people aged 50 and older to stay in the workforce longer. Additionally, they found that providing additional training could have helped 55 percent of older employees who stopped working to stay in the workforce.
Employers should also recognize that increasing the diversity in their teams – including age diversity – is great for business. Companies with more age-diverse teams experience increased productivity and reduced turnover. Research from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) revealed that increasing the share of older workers in a firm by 10 percent boosts productivity by 1.1 percent and reduces turnover by 4 percent.20