Nothing but a Number: What You Should Know About Age Discrimination in Hiring

Why are so many talented older workers struggling to find work? Small-business experts, employers and employees weigh in.
June 10, 2014

The day Ken Bodnar turned 55, he woke up in a panic: He realized he didn’t have enough money saved for retirement.

While Bodnar had once enjoyed a lucrative career as an information technology consultant and project manager making about $250,000 a year, the onset of the Great Recession had made work harder to come by. And unfortunately, he and his wife simply hadn’t socked away enough money to maintain their lifestyle if he wasn’t working.

Ken Bodnar

 

“When I took stock of my life, it was quite a dismal picture,” Bodnar says. “I came to the stark conclusion that instead of being self-employed, I needed a job where I could earn equity.”

But early on in the job hunt, it soon dawned on Bodnar that he wasn’t landing jobs that he was clearly qualified for. “There was very, very subtle age discrimination going on,” says Bodnar, who wrote a book about his experience, 55 and Scared.

“After one initial interview, I was told by the interviewer that they had a particular culture and they were looking for a specific fit," he explains. "[Prospective employers] would ask me to reserve a whole day for interviews, then tell me I could leave after 20 minutes. The minute they see gray hair and wrinkles, their attitude changes completely.”

Many times, Bodnar says, he was weeded out during interviews after being asked specific questions about new technologies that weren't part of the listed job requirements, which only seemed to reinforce the stereotype that older workers are unable to keep up with the latest tech advancements. “Unlike days of yore, there's a definite age discrimination factor in today's job market,” he writes in his book. “It looked like I would work for starvation wages as a Wal-Mart greeter or a fast food server. I was in a deep hole, with no way out.”

Hidden Barriers Remain

Thanks to The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 and its more recent cousin, the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act that was passed in 1990, it’s illegal to discriminate against anyone over the age of 40 when it comes to hiring, promoting, setting wages or terminating someone’s employment. Put another way, the laws are supposed to protect workers like Bodnar from being excluded from jobs simply because of their age.

But the sober truth is, there is ample evidence that a bias against older workers remains prevalent in the modern workplace, laws or no laws. A series of studies conducted by the AARP in recent years has consistently found that some 60 percent of workers between the ages of 45 and 74 have reported seeing or have personally experienced age discrimination in the workplace. More poignantly, nearly 20 percent believed they weren't hired for a job because of their age, and about 10 percent believed their age led to their losing their job.

Similarly, the number of age-related complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is up 38 percent since 2006, and new legislation called the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act has been proposed to streamline the process whereby workers can bring age discrimination claims against employers.

Even anecdotal evidence heavily supports the notion that ageism is alive and well in the workplace. You only need to reference the multitude of animated debates and conversations held on social media sites like LinkedIn, where older workers continue to voice their frustration with being overlooked for positions they would have once been shoe-ins for.

And with the working population in the U.S. aging overall—by 2016, one-third of the total U.S. workforce will be age 50 or older—things might even get worse. “The job market has been especially tough for a long time,” says Karen Southall Watts, a business consultant and coach based in Vancouver, British Columbia. “This ‘buyer’s market’ has made it possible for employers to engage in some questionable practices, one of which is avoiding older workers. ‘Over qualified’ has become code for 'over 40,' and employers seem to want to stay clear of workers who might deserve or demand salaries near the top of the range.”

An Overlooked Talent Pool

Despite the prevalence of discrimination against older workers in some sectors of the economy, some employers don't see age as a limitation but have come to recognize the value of hiring employees who can bring their years of experience to the workplace.

“There's no expiration date on talent,” says Roberta Matuson, president of Matuson Consulting in Florence, Massachusetts. “Given the talent shortage, employers would be better served by hiring those who are qualified, regardless of age. I always tell my clients that recruitment is a lot like going to Disney World: Everyone walks into the park and turns to their immediate right. I tell them to go left where the mature candidates are hanging out. [There's] lots of talent to be found where no one else is looking.”

To help older workers find jobs where they might be welcomed, the AARP publishes its annual list of the best employers for workers over the age of 50, which includes organizations like the National Institutes of Health, Cornell University, and BlueCross and BlueShield of North Carolina.    

Of course, some employers need to confront their own biases about hiring seasoned workers—especially the stereotype that older workers can’t keep up with technology. “Just about everyone has a computer these days,” says Matuson, who's also the author of Talent Magnetism: How to Build a Workplace That Attracts and Keeps the Best. “So it’s unfair to make assumptions about what people can and can’t do. It might take people longer to learn the newest piece of software, but once they get, they get it.”

Another incorrect assumption employers may make when it comes to older workers is that they'll be too expensive. But failing to take into account the fact that older workers may actually have fewer financial burdens than younger counterparts could lead to missed opportunities to land talented workers.

That’s something Richard Klein, the circulation and marketing manager at Legal Marketing Pages Corp., thinks about when he’s scouting for new talent for his sales team. “I interview lots of 
young candidates with tons of academic experience but no prior work 
history,” Klein says. “Not only do older workers generally have more life experience, but 
they're more likely to perform at a higher level because they'll be 
compensated with a salary that allows them to have a decent quality of
 life.”

Klein also prefers to hire older workers because they aren’t typically saddled with six figures in student loan debt—something he feels younger workers must allocate more of their compensation toward paying every month. Having to spend so much on paying down their debt tends to lead to workers who are unhappy, both
 personally and professionally. “I don't want to hire somebody who's 
going to be unhappy,” Klein adds. 


In addition to potentially having fewer financial responsibilities, seasoned workers also tend to be far more loyal than their younger counterparts. “Workers in their 50s and 60s tend to stay in a job for seven years or more,” says Joni Daniels, a management development trainer, “whereas twenty-something workers stay three years or less. While there's clearly value in investing in youth and energy, the turnover that comes with it certainly has a cost associated with it.”

The Competitive Advantage of Older Workers

Yet another advantage more mature workers offer is that they often have a wide variety of experiences in areas like contract writing or risk management that can be invaluable, especially to smaller companies where employees are often asked to wear more than one hat to get things done. “Older workers often enjoy working as chameleons who work best moving in and out of different roles,” Matuson says, “which can be more challenging for a 22-year-old who doesn’t yet have that experience to fall back on.”

Hiring more mature workers can even become a key competitive advantage for companies whose customers fall into a similar age bracket.

For example, five years ago, when Tony Podias opened Synergy HomeCare, a non-medical home care franchise in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, that provides assistance to seniors and disabled people to allow them to stay in their homes, he immediately faced the challenge of finding experienced employees to help grow his business. “We try to hire the best of the best,” Podias says, “but finding those people is always difficult.” And while Podias needed to find certified home health aids to help provide care, he was also looking for someone to help him in the area of community relations and sales.

 

Maureen Wales

 

Enter Maureen Wales, who'd recently retired from an executive career in the publishing industry at the age of 69. But Wales soon began to miss the sense of accomplishment, as well as the extra pay, that came from working. Yet as soon as she began applying for jobs, she found that she was constantly being passed over for opportunities—even after doing her best to disguise her age by reformatting her resume.

But while she'd been a finalist for many jobs, once employers learned she was older, the interview process came to a halt. “It’s easy to do the math when you see on my resume that I have more than 36 years of experience,” Wales says. “Frankly, I felt that with the large number of people looking for jobs, I fell to the bottom of the pile because of my age.”

That is, until she applied for the community relations job at Synergy Home Care. When Podias called her for a first interview, Wales had become jaded enough that she paused their conversation to let him know that, all laws aside, she was a senior citizen. As she explains, “I just didn’t want his jaw to drop later on and then waste my time.”

But to her surprise, Podias let her know that she had everything he was looking for in a candidate to fill his open position. “I interviewed a lot of people for that position, including younger people,” Podias says. “But I knew I wanted someone more mature because our business is dealing with seniors. Sometimes it’s all about who the end customer is.”

All that was music to Wales’ ears. “I was delighted that he was so open-minded and that he recognized I had the skill sets, like public speaking and marketing, that were required to interact with the community,” says Wales, now 71. “As a senior citizen, a grandmother and someone who's been a caregiver for a parent, I knew how to connect to people based on my own experiences. I have a credibility with people that a younger person might not have at this stage in their lives.”

Podias was also looking for stability: He was hoping that whoever he hired would want to stay in the position for at least a few years. “I'm 42, and people from my generation jump around jobs a lot,” he says, also noting that the job requires flexible hours, a factor not everyone is willing to put up with. “I didn’t want to have to go out and hire someone new every year.”

But perhaps just as important as her personal experience, Podias says he's come to rely on Wales' executive experience—he's consulted her on numerous aspects of running and growing his business and even has her going on sales calls to clients, something he'd done exclusively prior to hiring her. 

“I come from what you might call the traditionalist generation,” says Wales, who also makes time for volunteer efforts on the side. “We were brought up to be honest and to work with high integrity. I feel like Tony trusts me in a way that he may not trust others. He knows I'm an honest person and have a work ethic that not every younger person might have today. We work together well.”

Breaking Through the Ageism Ceiling

While some seasoned workers might consider it a step of last resort, the fact is that one solution to overcoming ageism in the workplace can be to strike out on your own as an entrepreneur and create your own job.  

That’s what Ken Bodnar did after he continued to struggle to find his next gig. “I had to re-invent myself,” he says. “I had to create a digital online persona to market my services. I had to learn to use social media effectively.”

He also hit upon the notion of “micro-jobbing” or “job-chunking,” where he would take on small bits of work, particularly with smaller companies who needed his skills but who might not be able to afford to hire a full-time person who had those skills. As a result, Bodnar found himself working for many startups—a situation that soon provided him the chance to be paid in equity as a way to build up his retirement coffers.

Three years after his moment of crisis, Bodnar, now 58, has moved beyond his part-time work to become the chief technology officer of two companies: SelectBidder.com, a wholesale market for automobile dealers, and a data privacy cloud storage company in the Bahamas. And he owns equity in both.

“I think I've stumbled upon the future of work for a large number of people,” Bodnar says, “especially older people who are having difficulty in the professional job markets.”

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Photos: Getty Images, Courtesy Ken Bodnar, Synergy HomeCare