Several weeks ago, we asked readers to write us about whether they believe age discrimination is a pervasive problem in the workplace. We received more than 70 responses--many of them angry, sad and poignant--from people recounting personal experiences. The volume of mail was particularly notable given that today's labor market is considered the best for workers in decades. Next week we'll talk about the tactics some readers offered to get around age bias--which most companies have specific policies banning. But today is an open forum for what they said.
From economic consultant and researcher Marc Bendick Jr.: "Are perceptions of age discrimination real? You ask? Enclosed is documentation of scientific experiments that reply: You bet! The best estimate is that older workers encountered discrimination 41.2 percent of the times they applied for a job. Four times out of ten! And incidentally, the 41.2 percent figure is even higher than the rate of about 20-25 percent we have determined for race discrimination, using comparable testing studies," he wrote.
Bendick's research on the topic was published last month in the Journal of Aging & Social Policy. Bendick and two colleagues sent out four pairs of testers--one of each pair aged 57 and the other 32--armed with resumes indicating similar skills and education. They trained for more than a week to mimic each other's speech patterns and behavior. They responded to 140 advertised job vacancies.
Bendick reported that the older workers received less-favorable responses from employers 41.2 percent of the time. He said he found that older workers were dismissed as candidates without even being interviewed, and that younger candidates were told they were favored partially because of their age.
A human resources executive at a trade association agreed with Bendick's findings. "From being on both sides of the hiring table, I know that age discrimination is prevalent," the 53-year-old wrote. "The question of age is constantly an issue. Managers, officers and the president of the company often ask the age of an applicant" and use age as a reason to reject an older candidate out of hand without an interview, she said.
In a follow-up interview, she described a recent incident in which two managers, both around age 50, were seeking to fill a low-level position that was previously occupied by workers in their late twenties. The HR executive said the job is now viewed as unattractive by younger workers, who have many more opportunities. The only applicants have been baby boomers who were well qualified. But she said the older candidates have all been rejected out of hand and the two managers have left the position open for four months because they believe there are no viable candidates.
"The problem is that they don't even see themselves on the other side of the table," she said later, adding that many managers appear fearful of identifying in any way with older workers and are therefore reluctant to hire them.
Many readers offered their own experiences. One 62-year-old man had a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania and work experience that included analyzing Internet development in China and being a founding member of a regional Internet society. He wrote that at a recent technical job fair he was brushed off by recruiters in their late twenties. Their only question to him was when he had graduated from college--which he viewed as a thinly veiled way to find out his obviously mature age.
"I'm sick of all this whining in the business press about technical companies having a hard time finding workers," he said in a follow-up interview. "I hope they all just hang, twisting there in the wind."
A 30-year-old Web designer said executives at tech companies can more easily justify to themselves the work conditions they expect if they view the candidates as young and unencumbered by children or aging parents. "You have to understand working conditions in the high-tech industry," he wrote. "25- and 30-year-olds are (presumably) willing to work 70 or 80 hour weeks for salaries that are half vapor," in the form of stock options that he said may prove worthless.
Younger workers also are relatively unsophisticated in the workplace compared with older workers. "40-year-olds want to spend the occasional weekend with their families and have discovered the orthodontist doesn't take stock options in lieu of cash," he wrote.
He added that he believes the influx of foreign technology workers is compounding the problem because "for them, the U.S. visa is a major part of the job's benefits."
A 57-year-old man with a master's degree in chemical engineering and a doctorate in statistics and economics described himself as having a life of "significant managerial and technical achievements." He said he received no calls back or interviews from many employers during a recent job search, including one at a prominent high-tech company that asked for his exact training and skill set.
Surprised and stunned at his metamorphosis from a hotly sought commodity to a white elephant, he said he ended up becoming a government patent examiner.
"I think the origins of age discrimination are complex, and, having human frailties myself, I am sympathetic," he wrote. "Yet the facts suggest that the practice is stupid and counterproductive."
A telecommunications account executive in his fifties wrote that despite a stellar sales record, he has found recently that many of the largest companies won't even consider hiring older workers. At one company, he said, a sales manager wanted to hire him but a human resource executive in her thirties nixed it. He said the company continued to advertise the opening for weeks afterward, clearly willing to let positions go unfilled rather than hire an older worker.
He said he believed the federal government has not been aggressive enough in prosecuting age discrimination cases. "These discriminating companies are not only violating the federal laws, but they are also hurting our economy and the security of our nation," he wrote.
A 64-year-old man who has started and run four successful start-up high-tech companies said he shut down one business and then found himself almost unemployable. "No one would even interview me," he wrote. "What a waste." He added that his 92-year-old father, a university professor, is still going strong and doing good work.
An educator, age 62, described a wide-ranging career with many successes. She said that she is now unable to find a position in any local school system and that she simply receives no response to her resumes. "Before I was always standing in the right place at the right time," she wrote. "Now no matter where you are standing, it's not the right place."
From a journalist, age 54: "I was a hot prospect, actively courted by employers until I left a job at age 50. Then, after sailing through pre-interview screenings, essays and interviews, and making the final cut for a half-dozen jobs in my profession, I lost each and every one to a less qualified, less experienced person in his or her 30s." In one case, she was told they were looking for someone with "young ideas," leaving her wondering how becoming just a few years older had suddenly turned her ideas ancient.