In an improving economy, is age discrimination getting better or worse?


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Recent headlines haven't made it look easy to be over the hill at work.

Washington, D.C.,  power players are turning to plastic surgery to avoid a "use by" date for their careers. Silicon Valley firms are hiring high school students as interns. Twitter got hit with a lawsuit alleging age discrimination last week by a former manager.

And when veteran NFL sideline reporter Pam Oliver confirmed that she had been replaced by a younger Erin Andrews recently, some questioned whether ageism was at play. (In media reports, Fox has said age and race had nothing to do with its decision on Oliver, and Twitter has said the case is without merit. The company did not respond immediately to a request for comment.)

All of which made us wonder: In today's economy, is age discrimination getting better or worse?

The answer, as you might expect, is that it's complicated. While numbers point to a downward trend, and there is some evidence of a warming toward older workers, ageism remains a real issue that's among the hardest complaints by workers to prove.

Charges of age discrimination to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have actually declined slightly in recent years. The number of age-related filings went from 22,857 in 2012 (23 percent of all claims) to 21,396 in 2013 (22.8 percent of the total). Both numbers are down from a high of 24,582 in 2008 (or nearly 26 percent of all filings).

But those numbers only offer part of the picture. While charges are down, total monetary awards are up, reaching $97.9 million for 2013, the highest level since 1997. Some workers may file charges at a state Fair Employment Practice Agency, says Ray Peeler, a senior attorney adviser for the EEOC. And of course, many employees don't actually take action after facing age discrimination at work. "Our numbers don't necessarily reflect what all's going on out in the world," says Peeler.

There are at least two possible explanations for why the number of charges have started to fall. For one, the economy has been on an upswing. "It's a well-established phenomenon that if the economy is going down, the number of job discrimination claims in various categories goes way up," says Garry Mathiason, a senior partner with Littler Mendelson, a global employment law firm. Now, he says, "employment is getting better. So there's a little bit of a drop."

Another potential rationale is that years after the worst of the recession's cutbacks, more older workers are experiencing age discrimination as they try to get hired -- rather than on their way out the door. Older employees, says Laurie McCann, senior attorney with the AARP Foundation, are overrepresented among the ranks of the long-term unemployed. While they may suspect age is limiting them from getting interviews or callbacks, it's typically not enough for them to file an actual claim. "You're on the outside looking in," she says.

A 2012 AARP survey found that 77 percent of unemployed respondents aged 45 to 54 said workers face age discrimination in the workplace, based on their experience. Just 58 percent of those employed full-time said the same.

Increases in online job applications, McCann says, also create more stumbling blocks for older workers. Candidates who might have left the year they graduated from college off of a paper or e-mailed resume can't do that if a web-based application requires them to complete every field before it can be submitted. As a result of such practices, says Norman Matloff, a computer science professor at University of California, Davis who has studied age discrimination in the tech industry, many older workers "can't even get to first base. They can't get past H.R."

The tech industry has been under particular scrutiny recently for its youth-oriented culture. Big Silicon Valley firms have been called out for explicitly requesting "new grads" in job descriptions -- a no-no in the eyes of the EEOC. Bay Area venture capitalists have a reputation for bias against older founders. And plastic surgeons in San Francisco say they're getting queries from the under-40 crowd about Botox and baldness. In the tech industry, says Matloff, "it's a funny definition of old. We're not talking about 55. We're talking about 35."

But despite tech's reputation for valuing youth, some see a thawing in the attention given to older workers. Kris Stadelman, the director of NOVA, a work force development and training agency in the Bay Area, says she's watched an interesting shift happen over the past year or so. Top-tier tech companies still have a reputation among job seekers and recruiters as wanting younger workers, she says. "We still hear things like 'stale degree' used as a euphemism for age," she says.

That said, Stadelman has seen a "warming trend" toward older workers among more mid-tier firms. There's more hiring going on, for one. But she also believes the "feeding frenzy" for young tech whizzes and the high salaries they've commanded have produced some anecdotal evidence of a trend in reverse. At the more mid-tier companies, she says, "their impression is that they've created this false marketplace. Now, they're looking at the relatively less expensive older employees."

Whether age discrimination is actually rising or falling, one thing is clear: Proving these claims is particularly hard. With other types of discrimination, such as race, employees have to show that race was just one of the factors in, say, losing their job. But if the complaint is about age, the standard of proof is higher. Employees, says the EEOC's Peeler, have to show "it was the reason that tipped the scales."

Read also:

For women and minorities, advocating for diversity has a downside

Sexism and tech

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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