Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Age Discrimination in the Workplace: Part I

Age discrimination in the American workplace is becoming more prevalent

Source: Courtesy/Pixabay

A friend was recently laid off from his job after working in the marketing/public relations industry for nearly 20 years. Anyone who has been laid off or terminated from their job knows all-too-well the fears that accompany such a crisis, (e.g. “will I be able to get another job?”, “will I be able to pay my rent or mortgage, keep a roof over my head, pay for my kid’s college tuition?”, “will I have to go through my lifesavings in order to pay my bills?” “will I lose my credit rating if I have to miss payments?”). These are just a few of the worries that face those who are terminated from their jobs. However a layoff or job termination is even worse when the employee who is let go is 50 years or older, as was the case with my friend. For anyone over 50, the prospect of finding a job, later in life is a pretty frightening and often a rather dismal process. I had the pleasure of seeing the film Lady Bird starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, and Tracy Letts. Tracy Letts plays Larry McPherson, the father of high school senior Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson. As the story unfolds, we learn that Larry has been laid off from his job. This comes a pivotal time in the family’s life as Lady Bird is planning to go off to college and she wants nothing more than to get out of her hometown of Sacramento, CA.. In one scene, Larry McPherson goes on a job interview and is interviewed by a much younger executive of a technology firm. In the interview, Larry describes his years of experience with his former company and the MBA he received while going to school at nights while holding down a full-time job. As Larry is leaving the interview he runs into his son, Miguel who happens to be applying for the same job. Although Miguel doesn’t have much formal education and even less in the way of job experience, he ends up landing the job. In the tech industry as in many industries, youth outweighs experience and academic credentials.

These apprehensions about finding work later-in-life have even been empirically researched and the outcomes seem to confirm what many older people have known and report, i.e. that age discrimination exists although at times it’s subtle or hard to prove. In a recent study done by Neumark, Burn and Button (2016) which appeared in the American Economic Review the findings suggest robust evidence of age discrimination in hiring especially for older women when compared to men. This particular study based their comparisons sending triple sets of identical fictitious resumes/job applications (the fictitious applicants were portrayed as young, middle age or older), to over 13,000 job postings in 12 different cities spread out across 11 different U.S. states, totaling over 40,000 applications. These authors project that within the coming decades the working-age population is expected to increase from about 19% currently to 29% by the year 2060. A Fox News blog indicates that age discrimination lawsuits have increased in the last five years. It’s estimated that many older workers who are subjected to age discrimination never bother to file lawsuits because age discrimination is often hard to prove. Jaclyn James, who is the Director of the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College defines age bias as the extent to which people perceive there to be a bias against older employees in their workplace. Having surveyed over 4,000 retail workers they found that over 1/3 believed that older employees were less likely to promoted. These researchers also found that “employees of all ages who perceived an age bias were less engaged in their work than those who did not perceive such discrimination.” Naturally, older workers who perceived age bias in their particular workplaces tended to be less engaged in their jobs.

A similar type of research study was conducted in Belgium, (again using fictitious applicants who were either portrayed as young or old), however different variables were included, most notably, what work experience older candidates did during post-educational years. Here, older candidates were likely to get a call-back for a job position if they had relevant job experience. So the question looming here is to what degree does “experience count” and is experience really ever valued? The older worker is assumed to have more knowledge and wisdom than someone right out of high school, college or graduate school but anyone over 50 may be considered “over the hill” or may be misperceived as being out of touch with the latest technology or skills. Certainly, years of experience seem to have benefit in some professions such as in academia, medicine or law. As pointed out in Tad Friend’s recent article in The New Yorker, entitled, “Getting On”, senior law partners certainly get to cherry pick the best clients while young associates are shouldered with the less-than-glamorous grunt work. Similarly, full professors usually get their pick of senior-level seminar-type courses while young assistant professors often have to teach freshmen level courses with huge enrollments. So in some instances, age matters however, even tenured professors are hesitant to switch jobs unless being assured tenure at their new post. This honor is usually reserved for those profs who have national recognition or who bring huge grant money to their new jobs. Similar to the attorney who brings a large portfolio of wealthy clients to their new law firm. In a 2014 article which appeared in Forbes magazine entitled, “The Ugly Truth About Age Discrimination” by Liz Ryan, she raises several prejudicial beliefs about older job applicants. For example, older job applicants are often perceived as being harder to train and “less nimble” when it comes to learning new job skills or tasks. Also given that older applicants have more experience, they may be more likely to bail as soon as a better job comes along. Yet, Liz Ryan raises the contention that younger workers may be just a likely to take a better paying job. As I’ve mentioned in prior blogs, job loyalty seems to be a thing of the past and that the so-called “cradle-to-grave” job is more myth or legend than reality.

Age discrimination is thought to exist only for those 40 and older, yet this raises the issue of the other types of job discrimination directed at young workers who lack experience. This happened with a neighbor who had spent a lot of tuition dollars to become trained as a “surgical assistant”. The school she attended claimed that they helped students with job placements upon graduation however, what my surgical assistant neighbor learned upon graduation was that no hospital or surgi-center would hire her without having, at very least, five years of experience. So her conundrum became, “how can I get 5 years of experience when no one will hire me?” In many respects, age discrimination can often impact both young and old often depending on the job or profession.

Alan Cavaiola/Neil Lavender
Source: Alan Cavaiola/Neil Lavender


Baert, S., Norga, J., Thuy, Y., & Van Hecke, M. (2016). Getting grey hairs in the labour market: An alternative experiment on age discrimination. Journal of Economic Psychology, 57, 86-101.

Fox News, (2012, June 7). Is ageism widespread in the workplace?

More from Alan A. Cavaiola Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today