The amount of Americans aged 65 and older in the workforce is rapidly growing. People are choosing to work longer, go back to work, and explore new career paths. However, many employer practices are targeted toward young and new workers.
While most people acknowledge that older workers bring value to the workplace, these workers are treated differently than younger workers in hiring, firing, and retirement policies. They also tend to face workplace discrimination.
This article will explore the ways older workers are treated differently and explain some of the biases and stereotypes they face. To learn more about how and why older workers experience discrimination, keep reading.
People choose to continue working as they age for many reasons. Most need to support themselves and their families. Some want to keep their minds and bodies active and have something interesting to do. Others simply enjoy their work and want to continue their careers. Regardless of the motivation, older workers have the right to choose when and how to leave the workforce, but discrimination against older employees adds barriers to these rights.
According to a survey by the American Association of Retired Persons, or AARP, nearly 2 out of 3 workers aged 45 and older say they have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. Of these workers, about 91% of them cited that they believed this discrimination is commonplace, revealing that the majority of workers aged 45 and older both see age discrimination and view it as standard.
Even if you have not experienced age discrimination, knowledge of mistreatment of older workers may leave you feeling insecure in your position or apprehensive of future mistreatment.
Discrimination against older workers manifests in many ways.
In a survey of 3900 people over the age of 45, again administered by the AARP, 12% of people said they had been passed over for a promotion due to their age. Furthermore, 7% of people in this survey said they had been fired or forced out of a job due to their age.
Firing workers because of their age is not in accordance with anti-age discrimination laws. However, it can occur when employers believe older workers’ skills are outdated or are biased because they perceive older workers as slower or less motivated than younger workers. Unfortunately, this practice still exists and can be witnessed nationwide, even in large companies such as IBM.
From 2013-2018, IBM fired over 20,000 employees over the age of 40.
Even when these employees had positive performance reviews, the company targeted these workers for elimination. Moreover, they pressured several older workers into early retirement to prevent their widespread layoffs from being put into public scrutiny.
During this time, IBM also cited a common stereotype about older workers, saying their skills were “out of date”. However, while they claimed to fire older employees, for this reason, they also brought these same workers back as “contract workers,” revealing they were satisfied with their performance. In reality, this practice allowed IBM to pay re-hired employees less and provide fewer benefits. After firing employees, they refused to cite specific reasons.
A lawsuit against IBM has been lodged, as these older employees prepare to charge IBM with discrimination.
Even when older workers are not fired, they still face discrimination. In the workplace, many older employees have experienced direct discomfort because of their age. For example, about a quarter of those surveyed reported hearing a supervisor or coworker make negative remarks about their age, creating an unpleasant work environment and reinforcing age-based biases.
When about a quarter of workers do not plan to ever fully leave the workforce, meaning they will work into old age, it is vital that these practices change to ensure fair and comfortable workplace conditions for all.
Views of Older Workers
As the workforce ages, views of older workers are constantly shifting. In TransAmerica Center’s 18th annual retirement survey, workers and employers were surveyed about many aspects including older workers in the workforce. Questions included assessments of opinions on worker treatment, including retirement plans, hiring practices, and opinions of older workers.
During this survey, employers and employees were surveyed about their views of older workers, which is a vital aspect of how they are treated in the workplace. Many positive views were expressed, and most employers acknowledged the value of older workers. After all, older workers have often worked at the same company for several years, giving them inside knowledge of the company’s function and character.
For instance, 59% of employers agreed that older workers have valuable knowledge and life experience. Moreover, employers tended to agree that older workers are more reliable and are important resources for mentoring younger and newer employees.
In contrast, 59% of employers and 54% of workers also cited negative perceptions of older workers.
Some negative perceptions included stereotypes that older workers are less open to learning new skills and ideas, as well as concerns that they are unwilling to view diverse perspectives. These stereotypes contribute to stressful work environments and the potential mistreatment of older workers.
The idea that older workers are less open to new skills may lead employers to fire them rather than provide necessary training, opting to hire young workers who already possess the necessary skills instead. Moreover, older workers are significantly less likely to be promoted in jobs that require flexibility and creativity.
Other reasons employers and workers viewed and treated older workers differently included cost concerns.
In the same survey, they indicated the belief that older workers come with higher healthcare costs and wages. Negative views of workers’ impact on a company can lead to unfair hiring practices and harmful workplace standards.
So, if workers and employers view older employees differently, how does this affect their treatment and support of these workers?
About 82% of employers believe their company is supportive of people working past age 65. Unfortunately, this means 18% of employers did not agree with this assessment, implying they may view their older employees as incapable or neglect to allow workers to work past this age.
Moreover, only 72% of workers agree that their employer is actually supportive of workers older than 65. This shows that they believe employers negatively view older workers and neglect to provide useful resources to help them succeed in the workplace and beyond.
Aging-friendly companies are those that work to adapt to the needs of the aging workforce and support their employees in the workplace as they age. While the simple existence of the term “aging-friendly” indicates that older workers are generally treated differently and that some companies are not “aging friendly,” these practices can limit this discrepancy and help reduce discrimination against older employees.
There are many ways companies can work to be “aging friendly.” For example, employers can offer training and tools to allow older workers to keep skills up to date. This, in turn, helps reduce stereotypes about older workers being unable to keep up with changes in their companies. They can also offer flexible arrangements for workers transitioning into retirement, reducing anxiety about retirement plans, and removing the harmful stigma that surrounds retiring workers.
About 70% of employers consider their workplace to be aging-friendly by offering these opportunities. However, only 23% of employers have a diversity and inclusion policy that has a provision for age. Therefore, while companies may claim to be aging-friendly, their policies and standard procedures might not support this claim.
There are widespread movements for companies to reduce age discrimination. For example, over 700 companies have joined the AARP’s Employer Pledge Program, which asks employers to commit to recruit equally from all age groups and treat each age group equally, attempting to alleviate some discrepancies in hiring practices.
Age Discrimination in Hiring Practices
In TransAmerica’s survey, employers were asked at what age they thought an employee would be considered “too old” to hire. While most employers said it “depended on the person,” about 24% cited an age, the average of which was 64.
This number reveals the misconception that age makes a person less capable of producing quality work. These misconceptions create barriers to older workers finding jobs, and if a worker is fired from a company they have worked at for several years, they may struggle to balance this shock with a job search and the necessity of learning new skills.
When older workers leave the workforce, they often find it very difficult to re-enter.
Research has indicated that when workers over 55 are dismissed, it takes them significantly longer to find a job than younger workers in the same situation. This may be partially explained by the fact that in general, young job seekers are 40% more likely to receive an interview than older ones.
Older workers’ knowledge is widely undervalued and may be overlooked due to the belief that they are less alert or productive. However, most employers neglect to acknowledge that slowed reaction times can be offset by valuable experience, wisdom, and leadership skills that older workers possess.
Another reason employers discriminate against older workers in hiring practices is the belief that they are less reliable due to heightened health issues as age increases. The inability to learn new skills is another reason employers often fire or fail to hire older workers. Unsurprisingly, these ideas lack support, as the evidence does not show that older workers are less productive or less receptive to learning new skills.
Actually, workers often experience an increase in motivation as they age, and tend to be more motivated to exceed their employer’s expectations than younger workers. Also, not all older workers are the same, and will have different abilities, skills, and needs that employers cannot anticipate based solely on a job applicant’s age. While stereotypes about older workers are unfair and false, employers still rely on them to make hiring decisions.
Overall, older workers are less likely to be contacted for job interviews and are generally less likely to be hired than younger workers. Employers allow biases and misconceptions to support their uneven hiring practices and may use false beliefs about costs and abilities to back up their decisions not to hire older workers.
Many older workers also want to transition into retirement rather than immediately retiring completely. However, while 47% of workers want a phased retirement in which they transition out of the workplace by reducing hours or changing responsibilities, only 20% of employers offer such provisions. This indicates a disconnect between employees’ desires and employers’ actions and the failure of employers to meet the needs of older workers.
Moreover, employers that do not offer phased retirement plans are unlikely to offer any gradual transitions to retirement. For example, only 32% of employers accommodate flexible schedules for retiring workers. And only 21% allow retiring employees to take on roles that are less demanding. These practices push older workers out of the workforce by failing to meet their needs.
Additionally, workers fear forced retirement or losing their job because of their age.
In AARP’s study, about a third of those who thought they would be fired in the next year said their firing would be due to their age.
These practices are unfair to older workers because they create barriers to allowing older workers a comfortable and reasonable transition into retirement. Many older workers wish to remain in the workforce but hope for a slower pace as they reach retirement. Failure to provide accommodations for these employees is a failure to properly help them reach their retirement goals.
Positively, about 55% of employers feel responsible for helping employees achieve a financially secure retirement plan. This may include offering retirement benefits such as a 401(k) or similar plans. Employers believe this practice helps retain employees and improve employee satisfaction while benefiting older employees.
Unfortunately, this also means 45% of employers do not feel responsible for helping employees with retirement. This is detrimental to older workers’ quality of life and reduces retirement options. In fact, pension provisions are declining, and many companies have reduced or closed employee benefit plans.
Neglecting to provide employment benefits and assist older employees transition to retirement constitutes the mistreatment of older workers. By creating a standard of maladaptation to older workers’ needs, these practices cause ripple effects that impact the workplace’s attitude toward their older employees.
Laws and Policies
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 made it illegal for companies to treat older workers differently than younger ones, except in certain jobs with specific qualifications. It acknowledges that older workers are discriminated against, especially when they lose a job and attempt to be hired elsewhere.
Overall, this law prevents employers from firing or refusing to hire employees because of their age. Moreover, it stipulates that employers cannot discriminate based on age when deciding salaries or employee privileges. Finally, it prohibits employers from reducing or stopping an employee’s benefit or pension plan when they reach a certain age.
However, this law has been weakened over time through several court rulings, making it difficult for older workers to prove age discrimination. Age discrimination cases must reach a higher burden of proof than other discrimination cases. This means more evidence is necessary to win an age discrimination lawsuit in court.
In fact, during AARP’s survey of older Americans, over 90% supported strengthening the nation’s age discrimination laws. These numbers support the idea that most of these workers see and experience age discrimination, and want widespread change.
Until this change is enacted, there are a few steps you can take to protect yourself.
Most importantly, make an effort to stay up to date on the company’s technology. Because many employers believe older workers fall behind on technological knowledge, understanding online features, or even taking an online class can help protect you from being fired by employers with age biases.
If you are experiencing age discrimination in the workplace, talking to your human resources is a good first step. Although these workers answer to your employer, they can investigate your claim and facilitate a conversation with your employer.
Ultimately, if the discrimination continues, you can speak to a lawyer to see if you have a court case. Carefully document the discrimination as it occurs to compile evidence and demonstrate a pattern if the case goes to court. The best way to ensure your claim is acknowledged is to establish a pattern revealing your employer mistreating you because they believe you are less capable than younger workers due to your age.
Older workers face discrimination in the workplace. They are less likely to be hired than younger workers and are sometimes fired because of their age. Stereotypes about older employees’ abilities and flexibility towards new skills often lead them to face discrimination or termination. And unfair retirement policies make it harder for them to finish their careers in the manner that works best for them.
If you are facing workplace discrimination based on your age, document your experiences, and talk to a lawyer. These practices are unfair and illegal, and you should not be mistreated because of your age.
- TransAmerica Center: Striking Similarities and Disconcerting Disconnects: Employers, Workers, and Retirement Security
- AARP: Age Discrimination Common in Workplace, Survey Says
- AARP Research: The Value of Experience Study
- ProPublica: Cutting ‘Old Heads’ at IBM
- International Journal of Management Reviews: Age discrimination and working life: Perspectives and contestations- a review of the contemporary literature