Fighting Age Discrimination in the Workplace

The January/February issue of the AARP Bulletin features a cover story on a pressing and pervasive issue for older Americans – age discrimination in the workplace. More than 50 years after Congress passed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, older workers continue to face age-related bias on the job, receiving fewer promotions and training opportunities, being targeted for harassment or losing their jobs involuntarily when an employer makes cuts based on seniority.

AARP research has found 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. And, an 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.

In today’s digital age, there’s another pernicious form of age discrimination that keeps older job hunters from even being considered for employment. It’s all about the ALGORITHMS – the computer codes and automated systems that help companies micro-target “help wanted” ads, screen resumes and filter candidates early in the recruiting and hiring process.

A few months ago, potential gender bias in algorithms made headlines when a man went public about Apple giving him a significantly higher credit limit on his Apple credit card than his wife, even though she has a higher credit score. Steve Wozniak, Apple’s co-founder, chimed in that the same thing happened in his family. His credit card has a limit 10 times his wife’s even though they share all their assets, bank and credit card accounts. The culprit in these seemingly biased decisions? The computerized system (aka algorithm) that takes in and analyzes data to provide specified output – in these cases, the credit limit on a particular credit card.

This is just one example of how technology can negatively impact important aspects of our lives. As AARP’s financial ambassador Jean Chatzky noted on the Today show at the time, “algorithms are in everything.”

When it comes to recruiting and hiring, algorithms can target online ads and job postings specifically to younger workers. Software that screens and sorts resumes can winnow applicants by the dates that appear in work or education history.

This isn’t a hypothetical issue. In September 2019, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that several companies broke the law by using Facebook’s ad targeting tools to purposefully exclude older users (and women) from seeing job ads in their social media feeds. A few months before the ruling, Facebook announced that it would stop letting organizations target employment ads, as well as those related to housing and credit cards, by age, gender or zip code.

A step in the right direction, to be sure. But, more needs to be done to ensure a level playing field for older workers and job seekers. As technology evolves and platforms jockey for ad dollars, we must guard against discriminatory algorithms and other practices that promote or allow age bias in the workplace. And, we need to educate employers about the value of older workers. About one-third of the U.S. workforce is age 50 and up, and research shows that these experienced folks have important skills, professionalism and a strong work ethic to the job site. Older workers 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 also urging Congress to reinstate legal protections for older workers that were rolled back by the Supreme Court in 2009. Next week, the U.S. House is expected to vote on the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (known as POWADA). This bipartisan legislation would require that age discrimination claims – and the required burden of proof – be treated the same as other types of workplace discrimination. Passing POWADA would send a strong message that any amount of age discrimination is unlawful and provide older workers with greater legal protections than they have today.

Nancy LeaMond, AARP

Nancy LeaMond is the chief advocacy and engagement officer for AARP, widely seen as one of the most powerful advocacy organizations. Leading its government affairs and legislative campaigns, she has the responsibility of driving the organization’s social mission on behalf of Americans 50-plus and their families. She also manages public education, volunteerism, multicultural outreach and engagement, and she directs major AARP initiatives that include supporting family caregivers through advocacy, education and innovative programs, and expanding AARP’s local footprint in communities across the country.

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