Age Discrimination Issues in the Workplace

Colleagues sitting around table in meeting
Compassionate Eye Foundation / Dan Kenyon / Digital Vision / Getty Images

Believe it or not, job seekers are reporting age discrimination beginning as early as the mid-thirties. By the time you reach your forties, you can be considered washed up in some industries. There are strategies you can use to help mitigate discrimination issues. There are also laws that prohibit employment discrimination because of age.

What is Employment Discrimination?

Employment discrimination happens when a job seeker or an employee is treated unfavorably because of his or her race, skin color, national origin, gender, gender identity, disability, religion, sexual orientation or age.

The Gray Ceiling

What is the gray ceiling? The gray ceiling is a term used to describe the age discrimination that many older job seekers and employees face when they are job searching or seeking a promotion. Even though employers aren’t supposed to discriminate based on how old you are, getting hired can be a challenge when you’re considered an “older” worker. However, you don't need to have gray hair to be considered too old to get hired.

Percentage of Older People in the Workforce

When the House of Representatives voted unanimously to repeal the Social Security earnings cap in an amendment to the 2000 “Senior Citizens’ Freedom To Work Act,” their rationale was that removing the previous earnings limit would enable more older Americans than ever to return to work. 

About 18.8% of people over 65 worked in 2016, according to the Pew Research Council. The National Council on Aging reports that, by 2019, over 40% of people over age 55 are expected to be working.

This will constitute 25% of the U.S. labor force.

Age Discrimination Issues

In addition to being considered "old," experienced candidates are sometimes considered to be more of an expense (higher salary, pension, benefits costs, etc.) than a younger applicant would be.

If you are middle-aged, or even younger, keep in mind that you are not alone:

  • Workers over 45 are unemployed longer than younger workers.
  • By 2018, the number of employees over 55 will reach 39 million, compared to 27 million in 2008.
  • More older workers are considering postponing retirement because of the down economy.
  • Research has found no relationship between age and job performance.

Age Discrimination and Job Search Options

What options are there for those potential employees considered "old" by hiring managers and companies? How can you address the perception that older workers are not as capable or as qualified as younger counterparts?

There are strategies older job seekers can implement to help expedite a job search, and to find gainful and meaningful employment. For the older applicant, it’s especially important to utilize the available resources for finding attractive positions, as well as to be aware of the online protocols for applying for a position.

Here are tips for job searching and writing resumes and cover letters, specifically for older job seekers.

More Job Search Tips for Older Workers

Joyce Lain Kennedy, author and career columnist, provides these resume writing tips for older workers:

  • On your resume limit your experience to 15 years for a managerial job, 10 years for a technical job, and 5 years for a high-tech job.
  • Leave your other experience off your resume or list it without dates in an “Other Experience” category.
  • Consider using a functional resume rather than a chronological resume.

Age Issues and Interview Success

Kennedy also recommends emphasizing the positive when interviewing:

  • Project yourself as cheerful and flexible and back that up with proof of your skills and success.
  • Review the benefits of older workers - commitment to a career, hands-on experience, a track record of success, stable and realistic expectations - and think about how they apply to you.
  • Use storytelling techniques to back up your claims of these skills.
  • Review these job interview tips for older job seekers.

Age and Salary Issues

Let potential employers know that you are flexible. Even though you may have earned six figures in the past, perhaps you no longer need to or you would be willing to accept a lower salary to get your foot in the door.

If that's the case, mention in your cover letters, when salary requirements are asked for, that yours are flexible or negotiable, based upon the position and the entire compensation package, including benefits.

Age Discrimination Law

Finally, if you believe you have been discriminated against because of your age, there are the protections provided by age discrimination law. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects certain applicants and employees 40 years of age and older from discrimination on the basis of age in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or terms, conditions or privileges of employment. The law is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The ADEA applies to employers with 20 or more employees, labor organizations with more than 25 members, employment agencies, and federal, state, and local governments.

The ADEA does not apply to independent contractors or military personnel.

Each state has its own laws providing protection for older workers. These may provide stronger protection for older workers than the federal law. They may also apply to all employers, not just those with 20 or more employees.

When job searching, be aware that the ADEA prohibits advertising that a certain age is preferred for a position, limiting training to younger workers, and in most cases requiring retirement at a specific age.

Any individual who believes that his or her employment rights have been violated may file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC:

Job Search Advice for Older Workers: Job Search Tips for Older Job Seekers | Resume Tips for Older Job Seekers | Cover Letter Tips for Older Job Seekers