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The Evidence on Age Discrimination in the Workplace

Data show that many older adults are forced to leave their jobs.

 © fizkes / Adobe Stock
Source: © fizkes / Adobe Stock

The baby boomers have entered their golden years and medical advances are helping people to live longer; the combination is leading to an aging U.S. population. Statistics tell the story clearly. In 2000, slightly more than 12 percent of the U.S. population was over the age of 65. By 2020, that number will be close to 17 percent and by 2050 it will likely reach 22 percent.

Our society must find ways to financially support this segment of the population for more years than ever before as life expectancy increases.

One option is to encourage older adults to continue working later in life. While extending employment a few years may seem prudent financially, most people do not continue to work past the typical retirement age. The most popular age that people in the U.S. begin claiming Social Security benefits is 62. Research suggests that a major reason workers don’t hold on longer may be age discrimination.

A recent study analyzed data from the Social Security Administration and National Institute on Aging’s joint longitudinal Health and Retirement Study. The study used survey results from more than 2,000 adults over age 50 who were employed full time with the same company for five or more years.

The data demonstrated that more than half of working adults in their early 50s were forced to leave their jobs at some point due to layoffs, business closing, job dissatisfaction or unexpected retirement. Another 9 percent left their job involuntarily for personal reasons including poor health or family concerns.

These job separations led to financial losses for more than a decade. Of the people who had to leave their jobs involuntarily, only 10 percent ever found another job at the same level or pay grade. And people who left their jobs involuntarily had a significantly lower household income at age 65 compared to those who didn’t.

Another finding showed found that 39 percent of new retirees in 2014 reported they were forced to retire, up from 26 percent in 1998.

What does all of this mean? Older adults are being pushed out of the workforce more often than their younger counterparts, which has serious financial implications for them as they age.

“We are learning more and more about the damaging effects of widespread ageism, both for individuals and for societies,” said Karl Pillemer, professor of human development at Cornell’s College of Human Ecology and a professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell. “Ageist attitudes and policies not only impair older people’s occupational lives, but also negatively affect their mental and physical health. The problem is a global one; in fact, the World Health Organization has made combating ageism and age discrimination one of its top priorities. By systematically excluding older people from the workforce, we lose the benefits of their vast experience.”

The take-home message: Ageism in the workforce is real and negatively impacts the health and financial well-being of elders. It’s also illegal! The AARP has a list of strategies to use if you feel that you or someone who know has been affected by ageism in the workplace.

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work solving human problems.

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