Does Age Discrimination in Employment Exist?

Posted Tuesday, February 10th, 2015| Comments (2) rule


Associate Professor, Bush School of Government & Public Service, Texas A&M University
Research Fellow, The Center on Aging & Work at Boston College


If you ask many older workers if age discrimination exists, you will get a resounding yes.  Surveys show that at least some older workers think they’re being discriminated against .  However, self-reports are not the best measure of discrimination.  While some instances of discrimination are obvious, others are more subtle, and sometimes there’s a non-discriminatory reason behind perceived differential treatment.

If successful lawsuits are any indication, there’s at least some age discrimination.  In 2013, the EEOC reported 21,396 charges of discrimination under ADEA.  Of that number, 7,232 were resolved by the EEOC, 7 suits were filed, and 16 suits were resolved in court.  However, the number of charges filed in 2013 represents only 0.025 % of labor force participants over the age of 40 and 0.043% of labor force participants over the age of 50.  Of course, this number could also be underestimating the problem if people don’t realize they are being discriminated against or they want to avoid a costly lawsuit.

It is more difficult to study age discrimination than it is to study gender discrimination or race discrimination.  With race and gender, we can set up experimental situations in which job applicants are identical except for their race or gender, but we cannot do that with age because as you get older, you should also have more experience.  We may prefer a younger worker with just one year of work experience to an older worker with the same experience not because of age, but because that lack of experience with the older worker might suggest something about the older worker being unwilling or unable to keep a job.  Similarly, older workers who have been in the labor market really do have more experience and employers may genuinely be worried about “over-qualification” instead of just using that term as code for “being older.”

We know that older people take longer to get new jobs while unemployed and are less likely to get new jobs than younger people.  This difference by age is true even in cases where we might think the reasons for previous job separation have nothing to do with the quality of the worker, such as mass layoffs.  But maybe older job seekers are just picky and expect higher salaries, or are less willing to move, or maybe they’re more likely to be in dying occupations or dying industries.

Experiments using hypothetical resumes can separate out differential treatment by employers from different preferences by potential employees.  Laboratory experiments with simulated resumes suggest that older job applicants are less preferred, although the type of job matters in these experiments.  For example, Elissa Perry has several papers with coauthors demonstrating that young applicants are preferred for “young-type” jobs.  Similarly, while Phillip Young and coauthors found that younger PE teachers were preferred to older PE teachers, they found no difference in treatment by age for teachers in subjects that did not require physical activity.  Recent work by Barbara Fritzche and Justin Marcus notes that older “job changers” are especially disadvantaged.  There may be other interesting differences; some new work I am doing suggests that age discrimination in hiring in an entry-level position may have different patterns for blacks compared to whites.

In addition to laboratory experiments, researchers have done field experiments called “audit studies” that send simulated resumes to real employers and measure their response rates by age.  A study in the 1990s by Marc Bendick Jr. sent applications to Fortune 500 companies and found that 32 year olds were preferred to 57 year olds.  This study controlled for experience by giving previous experience as a teacher or in the armed forces, which may be introducing different biases other than age.  In a more recent labor market experiment, I sent resumes to entry-level job openings in Boston and St. Petersburg, and found that younger women applicants are 40% more likely to be called back for an interview than older women applicants.  This experiment, however, is only really externally valid for women applying to entry-level jobs and doesn’t say much about other labor markets or other job seekers.  Current work by David Neumark is looking at isolating the effect of experience on differential treatment by age for a wider range of jobs and positions.

Bottom Line:  Yes, age discrimination exists in hiring, but we don’t know its full extent.  We only have small pieces of the picture and there’s a lot more work that needs to be done to see the full picture.

2 responses to “Does Age Discrimination in Employment Exist?”

  1. Helen Dennis says:

    Thank you for your excellent piece on age discrimination which provides a deeper look at reasons for what initially appears as age discrimination. Ageism certainly exists but your article reminds us to delve deeper when focusing on employment

    Another aspect that may not lend itself well to measurement is the fear that older adults have when applying for a job. “Who will hire me at my age?” is a frequently heard comment. The danger is that this thinking can very well become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Although at times such a comment reflects reality.
    Great piece and references. Many thanks. Helen Dennis

  2. debi says:

    As I have aged, the workforce is becoming increasing difficult to navigate. When I returned to school in my late thirties, I focused all of my assignments on the aging boomers and the workforce. Now that I’m in my fifties, I see the same workforce trends, with little provisions for mature workers. These assumptions about the lifestyles and behaviors of mature workers are discrimination. Even our government holds assumptions about aging and mature workers. Most folks are going to be working after the age of retirement and our government has not invested one dime into workforce development for the mature population. There is also NO school loan forgiveness programs for mature workers. I find much of our practices discriminating. Companies would not hire mature adults because they were afraid that healthcare costs would rise. Although studies have indicated that older workers are more dependable than younger workers, other studies have indicated that younger, more fertile workers tend to drive healthcare costs up even more. Younger workers have to take time off of work to take care of sick children and parents are out of work for weeks because by law, BOTH parents can take off time to bond with newborns. So, NO ONE ever looks at those types of studies.
    In my current government role, I believe that there is observable age discrimination, especially in their promotional practices. Yet, to challenge the system would surely eliminate one from any possibility for advancement forever. I guess you could say that’s one reason why no one sees the full picture.