Age discrimination in the workplace starts as early as 35

Editor’s Note: Older women workers now make up half of the long-term unemployed.

For PBS NewsHour’s latest Making Sen$e report, economics correspondent Paul Solman spoke with economist Joanna Lahey, an expert on age discrimination and the relationship between age and labor market outcomes, about the difficulty “older” women face during the job search. Lahey also offered practical advice on what these job seekers can do to get hired.

For more on the topic, watch the full Making Sen$e segment below or read Paul’s interview with economist Teresa Ghilarducci. The following text has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e Editor

Paul Solman: Are older women discriminated against in the workforce?

Joanna Lahey: Yes. Older women are discriminated against in the workforce. We know this to be the case for entry-level jobs at least. I have two studies, one that’s a field experiment that I did during the last recession where I sent out about 8,000 resumes — 4,000 in Boston, Massachusetts and 4,000 in St. Petersburg, Florida. I found that younger workers were about 40 percent more likely to be called back for an interview for these entry-level jobs than older workers.

Paul Solman: What ages are we talking about?

Joanna Lahey: We’re talking about age 35 to 65, 70.

Paul Solman:  And when does age discrimination start?

Joanna Lahey: Immediately. It starts at age 35.

Paul Solman: Really!?

Joanna Lahey: Yeah. It’s a pretty steady process. As you get older, your amount of callbacks decrease.

Why are older women being discriminated against?

Joanna Lahey: There are a number of different potential reasons. There have been several studies done where companies are asked, “Well, why do you think other people might discriminate against older workers?”

And reasons given include worries that they’re not good at technology, that they don’t have computer skills. There’s worries that they’re not active, that they’re slow, that they’re not willing to embrace change. There’s worries that they’re just going to leave.

Paul Solman:  Because how much longer are they going to work?

Joanna Lahey: Absolutely. And a number of these are actually not true. Another reason is that they might have longer absences. Or they might be more likely to be absent, because they’re sick. It’s not true, but that’s something that people think. And another one is that they’re afraid of getting sued for age discrimination.

It isn’t very easy to sue at the hiring margin, because nobody knows that they’re being discriminated against. They don’t know why they didn’t get offered the job. But it’s a lot more obvious when you’re discriminated against when you’re fired. And so it’s much more dangerous for employers to hire someone that might be in one of these protected groups.

But age discrimination laws cannot explain what’s happening to women. Such laws don’t seem to affect women.

Paul Solman: Why?

Joanna Lahey: Well, we don’t know for sure, but my guess, based on reading what lawyers in the field have written, is that older women just don’t sue. They historically have not sued under the Age Discrimination and Employment Act. That’s less true now than it used to be.

Historically, the people who sued under the Age Discrimination and Employment Act were people who had a lot to lose, and the people who had a lot to lose were generally white, middle managers in their 50s, who were losing their job and were losing a pension, because they hadn’t quite vested their pension. They were very close to vesting their pension, and they hadn’t vested their pension yet. Lawsuits are not fun. You don’t want to do a lawsuit. And the Age Discrimination and Employment Act is a little bit different than the Civil Rights Act in how it awards damages. And so if you’re suing under the Age Discrimination and Employment Act, it has to be worthwhile. And it’s really only going to be worthwhile, historically, for the people who have a lot to lose, which are these white, male, middle managers. Historically, women just haven’t had the kind of jobs where it would be worthwhile for them to take up a lawsuit rather than trying to find another job.

What not to put on your resume

Joanna Lahey: “I’m willing to embrace change” is something that the AARP used to recommend that you put on your resume but stopped recommending.

Paul Solman:  Because it didn’t work?

Joanna Lahey: Well, my first study found that it actually hurt older people.

Paul Solman: Really?

Joanna Lahey:  So the AARP told people to put in “I’m flexible,” or “I’m willing to embrace change.” It was one of the recommendations for how to counteract this stereotype. But it actually didn’t seem to be a very good idea. Older people who used to put that on their resume got fewer callbacks than younger people who put that on their resume.

What you can do to get hired

Paul Solman: So an older women — that is, older than 35 — what can she do about it?

Joanna Lahey:  Well, she can definitely show that she’s active. She shouldn’t just say that she’s active on the resume, she should actually do things that show that she’s active. So she should volunteer. She should take classes —

Paul Solman:  This is like getting into college!

Joanna Lahey:   It’s very much like getting into a college. There are a lot of similarities for older people who are trying to get into these entry-level kinds of jobs as there are for these younger people who are getting into these entry-level jobs. You’re trying to prove yourself, you’re trying to show that you actually do things.

So she should volunteer, she should update her skills, and she should take classes —

Paul Solman:  At a community college?

Joanna Lahey:  At a community college would be great! Or there’s various job placement centers like Manpower. They have computer classes that will help you get your skills up to date.

And those are things that show that you’re active, that show that you know how to do things. Rather than just saying something like, “I’m flexible,” or “I’m willing to embrace change,” which don’t seem to help very much.

Paul Solman:  And you don’t know if this is true of more sophisticated jobs?

Joanna Lahey: The economics community as a whole has really not studied more sophisticated jobs very much. So we don’t have much to recommend for people who are trying to get the next managerial job or trying to become a CEO of a new company. In terms of age discrimination and so on, that’s just a total black box to us. We just don’t know.