CHICAGO (Reuters) - Imagine a time when employers hung out a sign that effectively told job seekers, “People over 55 need not apply.”
That was the U.S. job market in the 1960s, when more than half of private-sector job openings explicitly barred older applicants, and one quarter even refused to look at applicants over age 45, according to a 1964 U.S. Department of Labor report. At the same time, employers were free to forcibly retire older employers based on age.
Those practices became illegal 50 years ago, when the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 was signed into law. The law was part of a broad wave of civil rights legislation that included the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Great progress has been made since that time, thanks to the ADEA and changing attitudes about age. That is reflected in the national employment statistics: in July, 3.2 per cent of workers over age 55 were jobless, compared with the overall national unemployment rate of 4.3 per cent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
But 50 years after passage of the ADEA, the picture on age discrimination is mixed.
The 55-plus figure paints an overly rosy picture of joblessness among older workers, since it does not reflect discouraged workers who lost jobs during the Great Recession and subsequently gave up looking for work. The real unemployment figure is more than twice as high, according to research by the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) at the New School.
And a 2009 Supreme Court ruling imposed a higher legal hurdle for winning discrimination cases, finding that plaintiffs must prove that age was the most important reason for dismissal or demotion. And the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) - the federal agency that administers and enforces the ADEA - needs to toughen up its enforcement of the law to better protect workers, argues Laurie A. McCann, a senior attorney for AARP Foundation Litigation.
McCann notes AARP survey research finding that about two-thirds of older workers consistently say they have witnessed or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. And BLS data shows that older workers earn less than their younger counterparts.
In addition, online application forms and job search engines still discriminate by specifying maximum years of experience accepted for positions, restricting recruitment efforts to college campuses or requiring college-affiliated email addresses for applications. Some job listings call for “digital natives,” which excludes people born before the digital revolution began.
“The issue is whether applicants can challenge the hiring policies and practices that these screening techniques represent,” McCann said. AARP is involved in litigating several cases challenging the practices.
But some aspects of the job market for older workers have improved. Tim Driver helps older workers find jobs through the website he founded 11 years ago, RetirementJobs.com. He thinks older workers find far more acceptance now than when he launched the site. That is due in part, he said, to the overall aging of the workforce - but also the “aging in” of workers who are far more comfortable with technology.
“Ten years ago it wasn’t uncommon at all for older workers to be digitally behind, but that’s a much smaller issue now,” he said. “People applying for jobs who are in their fifties and sixties have been around online for a long time now, and the internet became mainstreamed in the workplace back in the '90s.”
Today’s tighter labor market also has played a large role, he thinks. “Employers’ hands are being forced to expand the age radius of their searches, because they are having trouble finding qualified people to fill jobs - that makes it much easier for the mature worker.”
But the view on hiring - and retaining - older workers varies by industry, said David DeLong, an expert on the shortage of critical skills in the workforce and author of “Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce” (Oxford University Press, 2004).
“If you’re a machinist or a nurse you can work as long as you are able and want to keep going because of the high demand,” he said. “But if you’re in a field like marketing, sales or public relations, or a field with fast-changing technology, you are much more likely to experience discrimination.”
The key factors are the relevance and scarcity of your skills, he said. “Fair or not, employers have an image of older workers as being more resistant to new technology. They also are wondering if an applicant has the energy to work in an intense work environment, and how good the fit will be with their team.”
DeLong urges job seekers to be aware of the signals they send to potential employers. “Do you present yourself as energetic and dressed appropriately - either dressed up, or dressed down if the company has a casual environment? Employers are looking for people who will fit into their culture.” Get a close professional friend - or a job coach - to give you frank advice about how you are presenting yourself in interviews.
But before all that, he advises workers over age 50 to think carefully before leaving a good job with a good salary. “Unfortunately, people can be naive about how the job market will view them,” he said.
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