“I feel like every job out there is for a 29-year-old.” These are the words of a friend in her late 40s who is currently job hunting.
Age discrimination is real. Over 20,000 age discrimination complaints are filed each year with that number peaking at 25,000 in 2009 during the financial crisis, reports Elizabeth Olson for nytimes.com. Not getting hired is the most common type, suggests Kimberly Palmer for AARP.
The outdated stereotypes attributed to workers over a certain age can cause some organizations to steer away from considering them when hiring, promoting, training and providing other opportunities. And that action is illegal.
But how do you really know if you’ve been discriminated against and how can you protect yourself?
Let’s start by looking at the common stereotypes and what could possibly cause an organization to sidestep older workers. Kerry Hannon at forbes.com, thinks one reason for ageism stems from concerns that older individuals “won’t stay in good health, or have the energy and desire to do the job the way a younger worker might.” She also mentions underlying beliefs that workers over 45 are resistant to change, not up to speed with technology, not in it for the long haul or would dislike working for a younger boss.
If you’re over 45, do these concerns have merit when it comes to you?
Sometimes it’s hard (but necessary) to take an objective look at ourselves, suggests Susan Enyeart, Director of Curriculum and Instruction for SkillPath. Could it be that your skills need to be refreshed? Could you have been passed over for a promotion because you’ve eased up and aren’t showing the same drive and enthusiasm you once did? Communication could even be holding you back. Does your employer know you want to keep learning and taking on new challenges? Are you being too humble about your accomplishments?
Want to push back against possible discrimination? Here’s some advice:
- Stay relevant. Information and training are available everywhere so there’s no excuse for falling behind. Do everything you can to keep current with your evolving industry and technology. The speed of change is quickening in every industry. Don’t let your expertise become obsolete.
- Make your age and experience a plus. Soft skills are in big demand in the workplace. And if you’ve been working 20+ years, chances are you’ve learned how to navigate the intricacies of office relationships and politics. You know how to get along with most personalities and contribute on teams. Your time management skills make it easy for you to meet deadlines and juggle multiple projects. You’re not afraid to make decisions or mistakes. And you’re self-motivated, so you shouldn’t need any hand holding. It might be time to point these things out.
- Be your best self. Every business wants enthusiastic, energetic workers. Stay fit and look your best, so you can project these qualities. Keep up to date on the world around you. And don’t shy away from getting to know younger co-workers and colleagues.
- Communicate your goals and successes. Does your organization know your career ambitions? If you’re interested in promotions or opportunities, be sure to communicate this. Also, take credit for your successes so the contribution you make is clear. (Uncomfortable tooting your own horn? Read more here.)
EEOC and the law
Denying older job applicants or workers equal employment opportunities violates the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. This law protects workers over 40 from unfair practices in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation and other privileges of employment and helps to ensure employment opportunities are based on ability rather than age.
Despite the law, the legal community cautions that recent case rulings make age discrimination harder to prove than any other form of discrimination with courts putting the weight of proof on plaintiffs. They must show age discrimination intent.
Career pros second that cautious approach. The downside to filing suit is that it could hurt your chances of finding a job down the line. “Employers tend to see job applicants who have sued for age discrimination as troublemakers who might eventually bring a case against them too,” suggests nextavenue.org.
Despite this worrisome legal landscape, a bill (Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act), pending in Congress could reverse some of the troubling legal precedents and give older workers more legal options. Stay tuned.
You’re not alone if you’ve experienced age discrimination. “Two out of three workers between ages 45 and 74 say they have seen or experienced age discrimination at work,” Palmer says. And speaking with an attorney will help you understand if you have enough proof for a viable case. But taking a moment to objectively assess your situation and the stereotypes might help you make changes that can help you steel yourself and your career.