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Age bias complaints surge in bad economy

Older workers say they are facing a tougher time getting — or keeping — jobs because of stereotypes such as that they can't learn new skills or will demand higher salaries.
Joyce Kalivas-Griffin, 57, thinks her age might be making it more difficult for her to find a new job.John Brecher /

After getting laid off from her job at a private school, Joyce Kalivas-Griffin was heartened to see virtually the same job open up at another school in her area.

Kalivas-Griffin, 57, applied for the job, but heard nothing. Then the job was posted again, and she applied again, this time submitting a resume that she had edited to mask her age.

The second time, she said she was called in for an interview, but eventually lost out to a younger candidate.

Kalivas-Griffin doesn’t think that the other candidate was any less qualified, but she does think that her own age played a role in not getting the job.

“I have to kind of be almost pragmatic about it,” she said. “Would I hire somebody that was 57, thinking, ‘Will she be around? Will I be able to have a history with her (or) will she retire in two years or four years or six years?’”

The recent recession has amplified concerns that older workers are facing a tougher time getting — or keeping — jobs because of stereotypes about everything from the salaries they may demand to their ability to learn new skills.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission saw a 33 percent increase in the number of age discrimination complaints that were filed during its past two fiscal years combined, as compared to the prior two fiscal years. That translates into 47,360 complaints filed between October 2007, two months before the nation went into recession, and September of 2009.

Over the same two-year period, total discrimination complaints to the EEOC rose 19 percent, to 188,679. Discrimination complaints in general tend to rise during economic downturns, when people are more likely to lose a job and have more trouble finding new work.

Older workers seen as more expensive
Companies are desperate to cut costs in a weak economy. Experts say older workers  can become more vulnerable because more experienced workers tend to command higher salaries. A company looking at the bottom line may conclude that the best thing to do is cut the most expensive employees.

“What they end up doing is lay off the older folks,” said Mike Baldonado, district director of the EEOC in the San Francisco office, which has seen a surge in complaints since the recession began.

Some older workers, such as Kalivas-Griffin, say they are finding their job search much more arduous than in the past.

The unemployment rate for workers 55 and older is lower than for any other age group, at 7.1 percent in May as compared to 9.7 percent for the population as a whole. But those older workers who lose their jobs are taking much longer to find a new one.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said workers ages 55 to 64 were taking an average of 44.5 weeks to find a new job in May, compared with 35.1 weeks for the population as a whole. The latest jobless numbers for June are due out Friday.

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Assumptions are widespread
Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who has researched this topic extensively, said that while most employers know it’s unacceptable to make a broad judgments about women or minorities  — such as saying that they don’t respond well to change or aren’t fast learners — people will routinely make such comments about older workers.

“What is different about age discrimination is that the assumptions are so much more widespread and the apparent willingness to act on them is much more widespread,” Cappelli said.

Kalivas-Griffin, who lives in Tacoma, Wash., had been the facilities and transportation secretary at a private school for 12 years when she was laid off in November of 2008. She thought her years at the private school, combined with extensive prior experience doing bookkeeping and taxes, would make her an ideal job candidate.

Instead, she now thinks that her long resume could have been a turnoff to employers, who may have worried that she’d be overqualified or not stick around long enough.

Besides editing her resume, Kalivas-Griffin has lost 25 pounds and cut and dyed her hair. Still, she’s had no luck landing a job.

She’d prefer a full-time job because it would give her and her husband, a contract worker, access to health insurance and other benefits. But increasingly, she said she is moving toward starting her own bookkeeping and tax business, while selling custom-made jewelry on the side.

As a business owner, she thinks her years of experience are more likely to be a help rather than a hindrance.

“I did taxes in the past and I don’t think that anybody said, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re in your 50s,’ ” she said.

Age complaints hard to prove
Although many workers may suspect their age is hurting them in the working world, experts say it can be quite difficult to prove age discrimination has occurred, particularly during the more anonymous hiring process.

Many experts believe it’s gotten even tougher since a Supreme Court ruling last year that said employees must show age was the motivating factor in a demotion or firing, rather than just a part of the decision.

“It’s very hard to prove that the employer was motivated exclusively on the basis of age,” said Baldonado, of the EEOC.

Congress is considering legislation, the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act, that would re-establish the previous standard for age discrimination, but so far it hasn’t gone beyond committee hearings.

When employers cut workers of any age, they must be able to prove it was done equitably and fairly, Baldonado said. Companies can find themselves in hot water if they tell employees directly that they are being demoted or fired because they are too old, or make pointed comments such as, “It’s hard to teach old dogs new tricks.”

Subtle signs of bias
Older jobseekers say the signs of what they perceive to be age discrimination are often much more subtle.

D. Brian Plunkett, 54 and a former chief financial officer for a wireless company, thought he was a shoo-in for a job with a family-owned uniform company after an extensive interview with the company's human resources department. Then he spent five uncomfortable minutes with the company’s young, new president, after which he never heard from the company directly again.

A recruiter later told Plunkett the company thought he seemed “too comfortable” during the interview. Plunkett suspects it was because he was considerably older than his would-be boss.

Cappelli said his research has shown that a fear of managing older workers is one of the big reasons age bias occurs.

“Younger managers are threatened by older workers, and the reason they’re threatened is that they don’t know how to supervise them,” he said.

Cappelli said other concerns people have about older workers — such as that they will not stick around a long time — can also be true of younger workers, who may be apt to switch jobs at a moment’s notice. He said while younger workers can bring a fresh perspective and new skills, older workers can offer the institutional knowledge, interpersonal skills and other types of experience that come with years on the job.

Living with his mother in Maryland and desperate for work after more than two years of unemployment, Plunkett has applied for any finance position he can find, even entry-level ones.

He concedes that when he was a hiring manager, he might have been skeptical of someone at his level of experience trying for a job that would normally go to a much younger worker. But he said there’s only so much he can do to mask his level of expertise.

“I’ve had three substantial jobs and the oldest one starts in 1984,” he said. “They can do the math. You know, this guy isn’t 30.”