As work force ages, bias charges rise
Older workers complain that they are getting booted out of jobs or taking early retirement only to have trouble landing meaningful work that offers decent wages and matches their experience.
The Urban Institute projects the number of people in the labor force over age 45 in 2005 will be nearly 33 percent higher than in 1995.
While race, sex and retaliation complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) decreased in 2001, age discrimination in the workplace complaints increased. It also appears that more high-profile age discrimination in the workplace cases are making their way into court. The Ford Motor Co. last year agreed to pay $13 million to settle a class-action age-discrimination lawsuit. The AARP Foundation, a nonprofit member group for people over 50, was a co-counsel in this suit and two others alleging age discrimination.
But most seniors don't sue. Instead, age discrimination in the workplace results in angry, frustrated and demoralized unemployed or underemployed seniors.
Joe Putz of Dixon has spent years trying to find a job that matches his level of experience and talent, but his age is a barrier, he said.
The 66-year-old Putz (whose name rhymes with "foots") looked for a management or sales position in the trucking industry. Despite his nearly 40 years of experience, he was unable to find anything, and now works for $8 an hour, in a Rancho Cordova call center.
His job rejections "reek of age discrimination," Putz said. He has all the necessary qualifications and education, but never gets a good reason why he wasn't hired, he said. Age discrimination in the workplace is the only explanation he can come up with.
Age discrimination in the workplace pushes qualified mature workers into low-level jobs that don't require experience or education, said Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis, who has testified before Congress on the issue. As an example, he said, he knows of a computer programmer with a Harvard degree who is driving a school bus.
Employers complain that older workers are too expensive, Matloff said, but many older workers can and do take pay cuts just to stay in the field.
Matloff cited a National Research Council committee, which he said was "heavily biased in favor of industry," that still found that:
- Older programmers are more likely to be laid off than younger ones.
- The length of time to become re-employed after a layoff is longer for older programmers.
- When programmers are laid off, older ones on average take a cut in pay whereas younger programmers on average get a raise when they are rehired.
Betty Perry, the public policy director of Older Women's League of California, said that "age prejudice" has serious economic consequences. "Many older people don't just want to work but have to work to make ends meet," Perry said. "Rising housing costs and inadequate savings and Social Security force many older people into the labor market," she said.
According to the AFL-CIO, only 27 percent of all older women get a pension, compared with 47 percent of men. When women do get a pension, it's often fairly low. Half of all older women receiving a private pension in 1998 got less than $3,486 per year, compared to $7,020 for older men.
Women also don't benefit from savings income. Among unmarried women who do have savings income, half get less than $125 a month, the AFL-CIO research states.
When Babs Gross retired from the phone company, it wasn't money that made her seek employment, it was her mental state. "I was off for six months and nearly went crazy," she said. Gross, who is 70, is an employee of Experience Works, a nonprofit agency in Sacramento that provides training and employment services to low-income seniors.
"The common perception among employers," Gross said, "is that older workers are more reliable and dependable. Negative perceptions of older people, however, seem to outweigh these positive traits for many employers. Older workers are thought of as slower learners, less adaptable, and in ill health."
That perception is often wrong, experts say, especially in the 21st century.
"Being 65 today is very different than being 65 in the 1930s when Social Security was set up and declared to be the retirement age," said Linda Martin, president of the Population Council, based in New York City. "Even in the mid-1980s," she said, "age 65 was a lot older than it is now."
"Part of what employers have to think about is that these ages that are assigned to all of us are just numbers, and the meaning of those numbers is changing," Martin said.
Shattering the negative stereotypes attached to a 67-year-old woman has been difficult for Patricia Zellar of Sacramento.
Zellar said she can match any younger woman on clerical, computer and secretarial skills. "They'll never find anyone with this experience who is between 20 and 35," she said. Zellar, who is out of work, said that she needs to work to maintain her lifestyle. She and her husband like to travel. They own a boat and she snorkels and fishes. Moreover, she has worked since she was 14 and has no intention of sitting idle.
"Just because you get older, you're not on the verge of death. Those employers who want young chicks with no experience are cheating themselves," Zellar said.
Zellar said she's not alone in feeling the effects of age discrimination. Her friends, some in their 40s, have also found that their ages are a barrier in employment and advancement.
In looking for secretarial work, Zellar has signed up with about 20 placement services. On one job, where she was a temporary, the employer said she wouldn't qualify for their group health insurance.
"Federal law protects people 40 and older from being discriminated against because of age. But it's hard to prove age discrimination," said David Greenberg, a lawyer in Beverly Hills.
"Age discrimination in the workplace is subtle," Greenberg said, "especially in hiring." Greenberg said that winning a case usually comes down to statistical data that shows a pattern of age discrimination in the workplace.
Of the 80,840 charges filed with the EEOC in 2001, 21.5 percent cited violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. From 1995 to 1999 the number of age discrimination charges filed with the EEOC dropped. But in 2000 there was a 13 percent increase, and in 2001 the number of charges rose another 8.7 percent.
However, Mark Beach, the California spokesman for AARP, sees signs of a turnaround.
"I see a cultural shift starting to happen," Beach said, "as the baby boom generation ages, it changes how age and experience are valued."
Recent statistics seem to back up Beach's assertion. Challenger, Gray and Christmas Inc., an international outplacement firm, reported that in 2001 the median search time for a job for over-50 workers was 2.96 months, dropping for the second year in a row, though still longer than for younger people.
The median time for all workers, including those over age 50, was 2.69 months. In 1999, the average search was 3.83 months, which was the longest since Challenger started tracking the data in 1986.
"It appears that employers are beginning to realize how valuable a proficient, mature worker can be during a rough business cycle," CEO John Challenger says in the report. "And companies looking at demographic trends can see how important it will be to attract and retain older workers in the years to come."