When Age Bias Hinders the Job Hunt

In this economy, older workers may be confronting more age discrimination.

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Americans have long had a sense of humor about age that has no equivalent in attitude about gender or race. During a presidential campaign in which the top contenders were a woman, a black man, and a 71-year-old, it was clear that the only acceptable jokes were about the one candidate old enough—as Jay Leno told it one night—to have saved the White House from the British in 1814.

Now, just a year later, the jokes seem a bit stale. The nation faces the worst job market in two decades, and the unemployment rate for workers 55 and older has hit a post-Great Depression high of 7 percent. Older workers are laboring through significantly longer job searches than their younger colleagues, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports a "significant spike in age discrimination charges." For a group that has seen much of its retirement savings evaporate and suffered major losses in home values, finding work is more important than ever. But many believe ageism has a powerful grip on their hunt.

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More than 2 million workers ages 55 and older were unemployed and looking for work in June—the greatest number ever, by far. You can blame the recession and the size of the baby boom generation for such a high figure. But there are more insidious causes as well. Older workers used to be something of a protected class when companies were downsizing, says Michael Campion, a professor at Purdue University's Krannert School of Management. Companies commonly had a "last in, first out" approach to layoffs. Today, tenure counts for little with employers. Campion muses that the baby boomer generation now suffers the fate brought on by its own decisions: "We have, in the last 15, 20 years, adopted this lean-and-mean kind of style of management, which is: cut heads; reduce middle management," Campion says.

Stubborn stereotypes. Today's older workers are healthier, more able, and more interested in working. Yet Campion's research details common stereotypes about older workers: They're more expensive, harder to train, less adaptable, less motivated, lower performers, and less energetic. These negative stereotypes often directly contradict research about older workers' performance. For example, companies may believe that older workers will give them fewer years of work and may be less inclined to invest in their training, but research suggests that an older worker often stays with a company longer than a younger one, says Bob McCann, a professor of management communication at the University of Southern California. The idea that an older worker may not be as capable physically of performing a job is mostly irrelevant, McCann notes, given that the vast majority of jobs in America are not really physical in nature.

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Ageism can be difficult to research, since inferred stereotypes are rarely made explicit. In one effort, a 1999 study published in the Journal of Aging & Social Policy involved sending two pairs of applicants—ages 57 and 32 but armed with equal qualifications—to apply for 102 job openings in both entry-level sales and management in Washington, D.C. The older test applicants received "less favorable responses" 41.2 percent of the time.

Perceptions about older workers aren't all negative, Campion's research shows. "A common stereotype is that older employees are more stable, dependable, honest, trustworthy, loyal, committed to the job, and less likely to miss work or turn over quickly," he writes. Some employers have made a public effort to recruit older workers. In 2004, Home Depot partnered with AARP to specifically recruit older workers. The construction supply giant even promoted its hiring plans with a tag line: "Passion never retires." Bach Long, an assistant manager at a Home Depot store in Falls Church, Va., says customers appreciate the experience of older workers. "They know a lot about what they're selling," Long says. The qualities he seeks in employees are not age specific, however: "The main thing I look for is the motivation," he says.