We’re letting employers get away with discrimination against older workers

You hate to hear it, yet maybe you can recall an instance where you’ve suspected it: older workers are discriminated against in the workplace, be it in getting hired or retaining a position.  This phenomenon isn’t new, but it’s underreported and difficult to verify.  However, awareness of the issue has gained traction now that baby boomers retire in record numbers and questions surrounding boomers’ retirement preparedness are more pressing.  With October 1 marking the International Day of Older Persons, we’d like to spotlight the issue of employment discrimination against older people, and encourage you to support a co-worker that might be facing discrimination.

The most ignominious and high-profile case of age discrimination to date was uncovered through a March 2018 ProPublica investigation alleging that computer giant IBM had quietly laid off almost 100,000 older employees over the past few years in favour of younger workers. While the outcome of the ongoing lawsuits is pending, the investigation illustrates how surreptitious and easy employers of any size could get away with age discrimination.  Aside from the difficulty of detecting age discrimination, since employers can easily attribute the layoff to reasons other than age, it can be even harder to report and rectify if an organization’s leadership team or Human Resources department condones or conspires in that behaviour.  Accordingly, it leaves suspicious employees with reporting options limited to extreme measures like filing a lawsuit, or contacting a third-party ombudsman, a watchdog group, or the media.


senior woman

Older women, unsurprisingly, are more likely to be the target of discrimination.  Women have long had to contend with faulty (and frankly illegal!) assumptions about how pregnancies and family responsibilities could hinder their professional performance (something that rarely happens to men).  Certain industries such as film may dominate the conversation surrounding age discrimination, as prominent actresses have been vocal about the lack of roles for older women compared to that for older men, but this pernicious discrimination is prevalent across all industries.  A recent Ipsos Mori survey in the United Kingdom found that almost one-third of women respondents thought maternity leave negatively affected their career, whereas only 1 in 10 men thought paternity leave had a negative effect on their career prospects.  Likewise, the largest field experiment to date on age discrimination, led by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that the résumés of older women received fewer responses than those of older men or of younger applicants of either sex.

With women generally living longer than men, employment and hiring discrimination places older women in an extremely precarious position where they are less prepared to afford their growing healthcare needs, and are unlikely to achieve the necessary level of retirement savings and social security –a gap further exacerbated by the fact that women tend to outlive their partner who would otherwise contribute to the household’s financial security.

On this International Day of Older Persons, reflect on certain workplace situations where you’ve questioned a colleague’s dismissal or their being passed over for promotion.  By educating yourself on the issue of age discrimination, being aware of it in your workplace, and standing up or reporting violations when appropriate, you can help champion older employees at work who are growing increasingly vulnerable.  If you need further convincing, consider the prospect that the gesture might just be paid forward in time.

Sources:

https://hbr.org/2016/03/older-women-are-being-forced-out-of-the-workforce

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/10/26/why-age-discrimination-is-worse-for-women/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.abfd524add5a

https://nypost.com/2019/07/31/two-more-female-ny1-anchors-sue-alleging-age-maternity-discrimination/

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/aug/04/men-women-parental-leave-impact-career