Dawn R. Norris, Ph.D.

The Next Step

If Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, Why Didn’t You Hire Me?

Age discrimination in the workplace—do older workers go unseen?

Posted Jun 07, 2017

Once, as I was approaching another birthday, I found myself thinking about how other people see me.  What skills do they think I have or don’t have?  Do they think I’m good with computers?  Do they see me as energetic and hard working?

Questions?/Valerie Everett/flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0/image cropped
Source: Questions?/Valerie Everett/flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0/image cropped

The thing is, most people don’t know my age.  I look younger than I am.  But because people associate energy, computer proficiency, and work quality with youth, revealing my age could change my colleagues’ views about me...and not for the better.

Older workers are often discriminated against in the workplace.  (So are younger workers, who may be stereotyped as irresponsible, immature, or needy.  I’ll be writing a future blog on this.) This makes it hard to find and keep a job.

Age stereotypes are widespread and still generally accepted.  Simply walk through any birthday card aisle.  Look at how many of the cards make jokes about how “awful” it is to get older.  They portray wrinkled/sagging bodies as unattractive, show older people with unhappy facial expressions, and showcase word bubbles in which older people talk about their "horrible" memories.  Sadly, it is still socially acceptable to stereotype and discriminate against people because of their age. 

The Stories

During my research on unemployment, older workers shared their experiences of workplace age discrimination

rejected/Sean MacEntee/flickr/CC BY 2.0/image cropped
Source: rejected/Sean MacEntee/flickr/CC BY 2.0/image cropped

One of these people was Uma, a former systems engineer in her 60s who was highly qualified, and held two master’s degrees and many years of experience.  She was one of two finalists for a position in her field…until she had the face-to-face interview with a hiring manager in his forties.  Uma says:

“I went into a job interview and they asked…’How long do you think you’ll stay in this job?’ and then he snickered…I thought ‘You SOB.’…Ageism is just so insidious in so many ways…I get angry…The question is ‘How long will you stay in the job?’ ‘Til I’m 72 [10 years], like I have in every other job.  I won’t be a total mental r***rd by the time I’m 72.”

Another man, Saul, age 48, told me that he lost his banking job because of his age.  He was even warned by a coworker that he might be (illegally) laid off because, as an “older” worker with dependents, his health care costs could be too expensive for the company:

“[Losing my job] was tied to health care…The company actually paid for 70 percent of my health care… And they were looking for ways to cut back… I think that has a factor to do with the costs that were because of age.  If I were young?  It’d be cheaper….[A coworker who] was good friends with the manager…said, ‘Saul, do you have health care here?’  I said, ‘Yeah.’  ‘Drop it.’  I said, ‘My kids need it.’  ‘No, no, drop it.’  He actually warned me…It’s just a harsh reality.”

Your Turn

Older, midlife, and younger adults: What are your experiences with age in the workplace?  Have you ever been discriminated against because of your age?  How have you handled it?  Please share your story!

About the Author

Dawn R. Norris, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse.

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