Is Age Bias a Problem for Encore Careerists?

Our survey found that experienced adults are not likely to lie about their age when applying for a job.

The results of our survey last month on ageism in the workplace are in, and there are more than a few surprises. Survey takers gave strong feedback about whether they would alter their resume and appearance. They defined very clearly what matters – and what doesn’t – in their encore career. Most important, they explained why they want one.

Is there age bias in the job market? The answer most respondents gave was an resounding "yes." They also offered ideas for counteracting it.

Fifty-five percent of the 671 individuals who took the survey were between the ages of 55 and 64, and another 27 percent were in the adjacent age categories of 50 to 54 and 65 to 69. Two-thirds were female.

Asked if they would be willing to remove early job experiences in order to land a job, an overwhelming 81 percent said "yes." More than 72 percent would delete their college graduation date, and 58 percent would dye their hair. A mere 21 percent would lie about their age, and less than 15 percent would get Botox treatments to hide wrinkles.

Asked to rate how important certain factors were in their encore career plans, nearly 87 percent said "an employer who considers my age an asset because of my proven reliability and judgment" was "vitally important" or "would influence my decision." Eighty-two percent of survey takers also checked those two top boxes for "a job that utilizes my lifetime of skills and experience" and "an intergenerational work environment in which younger and older workers respect each others' strengths." And more than 77 percent indicated a strong preference in the two top fields for "an employer who understands my aspiration for work with a social purpose."

Here's a surprise: The largest number (46 percent) checked the "nice but not necessary" category of "a position that matches or exceeds my peak salary and benefits." Another 11 percent found that requirement "not important."

Does ageism exist? Survey respondents gave many examples of age bias in the hiring process. One wrote, "Two replies to 8,500 resumes with my good background. What else could it be?"

A common occurrence was getting the green light during a phone interview, then watching the interviewer's face fall when the applicant arrived for an in-person meeting. "No one called until I took the dates off my resume. Then, their eyes grew wide when I met with them, making their surprise hard to miss," reported one person.

Applicants told of interviewers using telltale phrases such as seeking someone who was "the right fit" or "fit the culture," and rejecting them as "overqualified" or "too experienced." Some were asked questions about their stamina and plans for retirement.

Respondents reported that one common practice is asking applicants the date they graduated from high school. Another way of trying to elicit an applicant's age was asking if the applicant knew a person at their college who attended during a certain time frame. Some were asked their age point-blank.

An older applicant with a doctorate degree was told he needed "a better color job" on his hair. Another applicant reported that a prospective employer asked "why I wanted to work at such an old age, saying, 'You know, at our age we get aches and pains.' I said, 'No, how old are you?' and he said, '46.' I was 62 at the time. Not funny."

The way it was. Wrote one person, "I am no longer seen as an 'up and comer.' I'm not used to this. I've been sort of sidelined, and it's not about the quality of my work or my energy level either. It's just age."

"I can out-work most of the people far younger than myself and certainly have far more experience, but I still worry that someone younger will be chosen because they have more working years left in them," said another.

Older workers told of being excluded from professional development opportunities and watching employers downgrade and eliminate jobs of those over 50. Some have joined class-action lawsuits.

"I work in local public health, and there has been a trend to replace older workers with younger (mostly female) employees. In most cases you are required to train your replacement if you want to buy yourself enough time to transition out with an amount of dignity," commented one survey taker.

Respondents described the heartbreak of wanting to give back but having no takers. One offered "25+ years of being a successful entrepreneur who still wants to work and download a lifetime's knowledge and experience to someone who could use it to help himself, if not others, too."

Wrote another: "Instead of asking us to fit the boring, unimaginative, bureaucratic jobs that already exist, ask us to design jobs that would be meaningful to us, and that we think would be meaningful to others. Give us a chance to do MORE than we have already done, not less."

Another suggested creating an "Encore Careers" division within employment agencies that would promote the strengths of mature, responsible and accountable employees.

Tactics for landing a job. What do older applicants do to improve their chances of being hired? In addition to dying their hair and updating their wardrobes, some recommended getting a facelift, having age spots removed, getting teeth whitened, adding a hairpiece, taking "energy pills" and removing the handicapped placard from their car. "Never talk about children and how old they are," warned one person.

More ideas: exercise, lose weight, get up to date on technology, read current magazines and get another degree.

Some said they improved their appearance for themselves, not prospective employers. Others said they refused to alter their appearance. "I do not want to work for someone who does not want to hire me," said one. Commented another, "Like Popeye the Sailor Man, I am what I am."

A better way. Survey takers offered hundreds of ideas for reducing ageism in the job market. Many suggested encouraging employers to hold sessions on the value of an intergenerational work culture. Some recommended an all-out advertising campaign to promote the benefits of hiring experienced workers. They called for positive role models of mature Americans on television and in movies.

Other survey respondents recommended a punitive approach. "Make discrimination according to age a felony," one person said. "Start fining employers on the questions asked on applications," another suggested. "Target the companies that don't hire older Americans and picket them as well as hit them in the pocketbook," said yet another. "Vote out any politician, young or old, that blatantly ignores the needs of an ever-growing population of older Americans."

Age is an asset, many pointed out, because mature workers are reliable, punctual and know the importance of finishing what they start. They don't take as many sick days and they don't have child care issues. Some are willing to sacrifice compensation for the privilege of working flexible hours. "Employers should give experience of life just as much importance as education and job experience," noted one survey taker

Many called for a national change of attitude in our youth-obsessed culture. "Two hundred years ago African Americans weren't thought of as people, but property, and we now have an African American president. The same has to be true about ageism, especially as boomers age," wrote one person.

A personal attitude adjustment can also be helpful, some said. "I don't view younger workers as competition but rather as complementing my skills and experiences. They too have skills and experiences and qualities from which I can learn," wrote one person.

Overall, said one person, "There needs to be recognition of the impacts of billions of dollars spent on positioning younger people as the most valued, and the same type of tactics and dollars need to go into making the country as a whole aware of the value of ALL workers and that, as a country, we can no longer afford to waste the minds and talents of our own people when they turn 40."