As the U.S. contends with a rapidly aging population, the number of older workers in the workplace is on the rise, and so too is age-based discrimination.
According to the National Council on Aging, workers over the age of 55 will make up more than a quarter of the nation's labor force by 2020. Despite their rising numbers, there's growing consensus that many older workers are facing discrimination.
Research from AARP indicates that 64 percent of workers have experienced some sort of age discrimination. The majority of workers said it typically starts in their 50s and can range from "institutional" age prejudices embedded in organizational cultures to overt statements in job ads such as "young startups" and "fresh talent."
Patrick Button, assistant professor at the Department of Economics at Tulane University in New Orleans, La., recently gave written testimony to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Button said while there's no definition of an "older worker," age discrimination typically starts for women around age 50 and later for men.
"Older is hard to define. I see 62 as the important age group because they face more discrimination and they face the largest increases in terms of share of the labor force," Button said.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act was enacted in 1967 and forbids employers with 20 or more employees from discriminating against people who are age 40 and older. Yet the EEOC is now in the process of reviewing the act.
EEOC Acting Chair Victoria Lipnic said at a commission hearing in June that "outdated assumptions" about age and work deprive older workers of employment opportunities and stifle growth and economic opportunity.
Yet proving discrimination can be difficult as workers typically need to show the employer exhibited a pattern of behavior that supports the bias. While the EEOC received nearly 21,000 age discrimination charges in the fiscal year 2016, only two of the 86 lawsuits the agency filed were based on age discrimination. Most of those charges were resolved through administrative means.
Common perceptions regarding age are that younger people are more excited and invest more in developing new skills, while older workers have less stamina, more potential health issues and outdated ideas.
Sara Czaja, director of the Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology Enhancement, says research refutes those assumptions. She says employers could do a better job of integrating older workers into the workforce by matching their skills and abilities with work environments.
"Unfortunately, numerous negative stereotypes about older workers still exist that often prevent or have a negative impact on employment opportunities for older people," Czaja says.
In recent years, some companies have been taking initiatives to hire and retain older workers. Insurance and manufacturing are two sectors where a shortage of incoming talent is enticing companies to place a premium on the experience and history that many older workers have.
Unless there is overt language or actions, it's hard for older workers to tell if they're being discriminated against in a job search. Those who have trouble finding their desired jobs can also frequently find themselves being viewed as "overqualified" when trying to land another position.