Do You Discriminate Against Older Workers—Even Unconsciously?

Discrimination Against Baby Boomers and Generation X

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Discrimination against older workers is a constant threat in most workplaces as bias, whether conscious or unconscious, permeates work environments during good times and bad. During times when unemployment stretches into months or even years for many workers—particularly older workers—employees want to know how to hold on to their jobs.

During times when unemployment is low, Human resources staff members want to know how to avoid layoffs and how to hold on to their valued employees. In both scenarios, older workers can experience the short end of the stick. Age discrimination is real and you must strive to avoid it in any employment-related situation.

And, for the uninformed, "older" can mean as young as age 40, and that's quite a percentage of the millions of people who are employed or unemployed at any given time. This demographic (older) falls into two age categories: baby boomers and Generation X.

Generation X vs. Baby Boomers

Generation Xers were born from 1965 through 1976 or 1980, depending on who you ask. Boomers, on the other hand, are a bit older, born from 1946 through 1964. Until Generation Z takes over, these generations of employees comprise the majority of people who are working in your organization.

Gen Xers (or Gen Y as they are also known) tend to be independent and they enjoy informality. They're entrepreneurial and they seek emotional maturity. They want to build a repertoire of skills and experiences that they can take with them if necessary, and they want their career paths laid out in front of them—or they’ll walk.

Gen Xers want balance in their lives now, not when they retire, like the baby boomers. They want time to raise their children and they don’t want to miss a minute of that as their parents—the baby boomers—did. Gen-Xers also want immediate and honest feedback. They're becoming the "older workers" in many firms as baby boomers increasingly retire.

Age Discrimination and the Unemployed

David Neumark, Ian Burn, and Patrick Button, distinguished university professors and economists, studied age discrimination. They found in their study of more than 40,000 job applicants for more than 13,000 job positions in 12 cities spread across 11 states, age discrimination was evident. Three of their findings are notable.

"First, the sample of more than 40,000 job applicant profiles offers statistical evidence that there is age discrimination in hiring—discrimination against both women and men. Second, older applicants—those 64 to 66 years of age—experience more age discrimination than middle-age applicants ages 49 to 51. Third, women—especially older women, but even those of middle age—experience more age discrimination in hiring than men do." 

CNN indicates and the BLS also confirms that workers age 55 or older have the lowest unemployment rate, but this is changing. Fewer employees in this age group were employed in March 2019. Jobs held by this demographic experienced the greatest plunge in that month since February 2015.

How to Prevent Age Discrimination

Any action that an employer takes that adversely affects a disproportionate number of employees over age 40, whether they're Gen Xers or baby boomers, can be considered age discrimination. While most employers don't discriminate in their employment processes, older employees might be subject to performance coaching and disciplinary action because of poor performance. Make sure you're applying the same requirements and standards to all employees regardless of their ages.

If you document the performance of one employee, make sure you also document the performance of all employees who perform that particular job.

Eliminate the possibility of age discrimination by applying all expectations and repercussions equally.

Remove any indicator of the ages of the job candidates from application materials you share with managers and staff when you're hiring. You don't want your managers to subtly or unconsciously discriminate against candidates who are selected for interviews.

Age Discrimination Lawsuits

At a time when many jobs are becoming obsolete—think administrative assistants, receptionists, landline phone installers, postal service workers, and data entry operators—age is beginning to play a role in who gets the remaining available positions. Age discrimination lawsuits against employers are up over 18% in 2018. This is the fastest rising type of discrimination lawsuit overall.

Age discrimination is illegal at any phase of the employment relationship, including job postings, job descriptions, interviews, hiring, salaries, job assignments, merit increases, performance management and evaluation, training, disciplinary actions, promotions, demotions, benefits, employment termination, and layoffs.

Older employees are demonstrating a stronger inclination to sue in an employment environment that offers jobs that are primarily underpaid and service-type minimum wage occupations.

The Bottom Line in Age Discrimination

Discrimination against older workers, either employed or unemployed, remains pervasive despite a growing consciousness by employers of its existence. You can risk the potential of an age discrimination lawsuit even if your intentions and actions are above reproach. Watch for instances in which you, and your employees, can proactively avoid any semblance of age discrimination.