Leveling the Playing Field for Older Workers

A career in Washington, DC, means a lot of turnover, and so, at the tender age of 50, I was job hunting after leaving the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative towards the end of the Clinton Administration. Freshly polished resume in hand, I recall going through at least three different job interviews where the questioner probed for my age instead of focusing on my qualifications and experience. While I didn’t feel a need to hide how old I was – I certainly didn’t consider myself to be “old” – perhaps the interviewers were reacting to my head of white hair. Whatever their reason, it was disconcerting, to say the least.

Unfortunately, my experience nearly 20 years ago is something that older workers and job seekers continue to face today. AARP research finds that more than 6 in 10 workers ages 45 and older have seen or experienced age discrimination, and most believe it starts when workers are in their 50s. A recent Urban Institute study found that 56% of older workers have been laid off at least once or pushed out of a job prematurely, and 90% of them never recover earnings comparable to the job they lost.

To make matters worse, today’s older workers have fewer legal protections than they did a decade ago. While the Age Discrimination in Employment Act has prohibited employers from discriminating against job applicants and employees based on age since 1967, a 2009 Supreme Court decision changed the rules, making it harder to prove age discrimination than other kinds of workplace discrimination. In a nutshell, someone making an age discrimination claim today needs to prove that age was a determining factor in the employer’s action. Even if I had an email that shows a hiring manager saying “Nancy’s too old for this position,” my erstwhile employer could effectively (in the eyes of the court) counter my claim by offering other reasons they didn’t give me the job or promotion. This is a fundamentally different standard than what is applied to discrimination claims centered on gender, race, or religion, where unlawful factors are not permitted to play any role.

So what can we do?

First, we need to educate employers about the important role older workers play in our economy and the value they bring to the workplace. About one-third of the U.S. workforce is age 50 and up, and research shows that these experienced workers bring important skills, professionalism and a strong work ethic to the job. Older workers also tend to be more engaged, an attribute that is linked to increased revenue growth and lower turnover rates. Age-diverse and inclusive workplaces also have higher-performing teams.

AARP is spreading the word through our Employer Pledge program. Hundreds of organizations have signed up, affirming their commitment to valuing and supporting older workers.

Second, Congress must act to reinstate protections for older workers that were rolled back by the Supreme Court in 2009. Last week, the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (H.R. 1230 / S. 485, known as POWADA) was introduced in both houses of the U.S. Congress. This bipartisan legislation would re-level the playing field for older workers by treating age discrimination claims – and the required burden of proof – the same way that other types of workplace discrimination are treated. Passing POWADA would also send a strong message that any amount of age discrimination is unlawful, and it will be handled the same way by the courts as other forms of discrimination.

AARP, on behalf of our 38 million members, sends thanks to POWADA’s co-sponsors for their leadership on this important issue: Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI). Anyone who wants to join AARP’s efforts to end age discrimination and stop older workers from getting pushed out of the workforce can sign up here to receive important updates and opportunities to take action.


Nancy LeaMond is AARP chief advocacy and engagement officer. She leads the organization’s Communities, State and National Group, including government relations, advocacy and public education for AARP’s social change agenda. LeaMond also has responsibility for AARP’s state operation, which includes offices in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

You can follow her on Twitter @NancyLeaMond.