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Ageism in the Workplace: On Unemployment and Getting the Job

visual resumeWe’ve heard countless stories from readers on The Hiring Site about their encounters with ageism in the workplace — whether they’ve observed it happening to others or experienced it themselves. I think we can all agree on one thing: It’s getting old.

This is the first post in a multi-part ageism series on The Hiring Site. In this post, we will focus on the challenges older workers face when it comes to employment and finding a job.

While instances of hiring bias have risen since the recession began, the growing skills gap has only compounded the problem, as people of all ages continue to fight for the limited number of jobs out there.

Nearly 5 percent of the U.S. workforce is 65 and older, which means the problem isn’t going away. In fact, it seems to be getting more prevalent. Age discrimination charges now account for nearly one quarter of all complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The ‘ABC’s of Ageism

Simply put, ageism means to discriminate against individuals or groups because of their age, and the discrimination is usually directed at older individuals.

The term “ageism” was coined in 1969 by Robert N. Butler, a physician and the first director of the National Institute on Aging, to describe discrimination against seniors through prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory practices, and institutional practices and policies; however, ageism has also been used to describe prejudice and discrimination against adolescents and children.

“Ageism allows the younger generations to see older people as different from themselves; thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings,” Butler wrote in his 1975 book “Why Survive? Being Old in America.” This sentiment poses a problem in a workplace setting where different generations must collaborate, compromise and learn from each other to move the business forward.

Long-term unemployment and discrimination

It may come as no surprise to you that an increasing number of older workers are part of the workforce than in the past. Interestingly, however, more than 1 in 10 older workers said they don’t think they’ll ever be able to retire, according to a 2013 CareerBuilder survey. Why? For the most part it’s a mix of financial necessity, a desire to do keep working and increased life spans.

Over the past several years the number of age discrimination claims have significantly increased; in 2012, 22,857 claims were filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission compared to 16,548 in 2006. To save you from doing some mental math, that’s a difference of more than 6,000 in just a 6-year span of time.

And according to CareerBuilder’s latest survey on long-term unemployment, 1 in 3 long-term unemployed individuals are afraid their age or experience works against them. This fear is even more pronounced among individuals older than 55, with more than 90 percent pointing to their age as a contributor to their long-term unemployment.

Desperate times, desperate measures?

Ageism in the workplace can take on a variety of forms and can range from discreet to apparent. For example, when plum assignments, projects or sales leads are consistently handed over to younger employees, or if older workers find themselves left out the loop regularly, it could be a sign that something bigger is going on. More obnoxious or outwardly apparent signs of discrimination could include disparaging comments like “old lady” or “grandpa” or, worse, being told outright that their best days are behind them.

Older job seekers don’t have it any easier, as they are often forced to contend with employers’ biases. For instance, hiring managers may mistakenly view a step down — an older worker applying for a lower-level job — as an indicator of their deteriorating skill set. Or they may just assume that older generations have no desire or aptitude to learn new technology skills.

To improve their job prospects, many older applicants leave dates off their resume to hide their age, some take to dyeing their hair and some are actually willing to undergo cosmetic surgery to look younger. WHAT?! In addition, some recruiters are guilty of telling older clients to omit or “finesse” key dates on job applications. I’m sorry, but these are merely Band-Aids and don’t fix the issue long-term.

Fortunately, some older job seekers have taken it upon themselves to enhance their minds instead of their outward appearances. For instance, 4 in 10 baby boomers surveyed in a 2012 AARP study said they had recently engaged in training, educational activities or certification programs to refresh their job skills.

Tell us in the comments below: Do you know someone who has been subject to ageism as a job seeker or employee? How would you advise these individuals to combat false perceptions and move forward?

And look for the next part of this series coming up where we’ll talk about possible triggers leading to ageism in the workplace and discuss how different generations can work together and understand each other. Be sure to tell us if there are particular aspects of this topic you’d like to see covered.

Amy K. McDonnell

About Amy K. McDonnell

Originally hailing from Ohio, Amy is the editorial manager on the content services team and has been with both CareerBuilder and the city of Chicago for nearly a decade. She writes on a range of recruitment topics on The Hiring Site, striving to bring a dose of clarity and humor to sometimes complicated issues around employee attraction, engagement and retention. When she's not working, Amy spends as much time as possible reading, pretending to be a chef, writing short stories, eating Nutella out of the jar, waiting for CTA buses and trains, going to see her favorite bands live, and spending time with people who inspire and challenge her.
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