The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Black workers, age discrimination strikes twice

Once when they’re entering the workforce, and once when they’re nearing retirement

(Kingsley Nebechi for The Washington Post)

Age discrimination sounds simple: The oldest workers face the strongest biases. But new research suggests that rule applies primarily to White workers. For Black workers, age discrimination is highest for the youngest, falls in middle age, and rises once more as workers near retirement.

A new experiment at Texas A&M University helps illustrate the surprising pattern, which has not been widely studied but tends to line up with Labor Department data reviewed by The Washington Post: Black workers are typically less likely to be hired than White workers with the same experience, but the gap closes in middle age.

This discrimination trend helps explain why youth unemployment among Black workers remains distressingly high. It contributes toward giving White workers a big head start in the workforce and depresses Black lifetime earnings — yet another reason a typical White family has eight times the wealth of a typical Black family in America.

The research also adds a new layer of understanding about discrimination in the workplace for younger Black workers who typically face the highest levels of unemployment for any demographic.

Economists, sociologists and Black workers attribute the pattern to stereotypes about young Black people, particularly men, as well as to systemic factors that lead to more middle-aged Black workers being overqualified for the jobs to which they’re applying.

When he saw the chart above, University of Connecticut sociologist Matthew Hughey was struck by the steadiness of the trend for Whites, compared to the volatile swoop of the line representing Black workers. It shows hiring managers tend to accept White applicants at face value while subconsciously scrutinizing Black ones, he said.

“Black people have always been more objectified, scrutinized and surveilled than White people,” Hughey said. “Every little thing is nitpicked on a résumé or explained as a possible red flag.”

The larger pattern is common in government data, but the chart comes from a new analysis in the Journal of Policy and Management from Texas A&M economist Joanna Lahey, a widely cited authority on discrimination in the labor market. Lahey noticed the counterintuitive pattern of age discrimination against Black workers when she and her collaborator, Douglas Oxley, asked about 150 business and MBA students to evaluate about 40 résumés each. About a quarter of the students had previously screened résumés in the real world, and 11 percent had experience in human resources.

The screeners were given the job requirements for an entry level administrative assistant position and asked to evaluate résumés with those qualifications in mind. The résumés they pored over were designed to be, on average, equal in everything but race and age, which were signaled by name and date of high school graduation, respectively.

For White résumés, ratings steadily declined until workers reached retirement age, reflecting negative stereotypes about older workers. But for Black résumés, the lowest ratings came for workers under age 40. If applicants were middle-aged, students rated Black workers higher than White ones for this hypothetical entry-level position.

Explaining the age differences

Florida State University economist Patrick L. Mason has long been cited for his work on the experience of Black Americans in the labor market. Like many African Americans interviewed for this story, Mason was skeptical, based on personal experience and labor-market data, that hiring managers would actually prefer middle-aged Black workers over their White peers.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics supports this observation, to a point. It shows the employment gap between White and Black workers narrows in middle age, especially for women, but it rarely closes entirely.

A similar pattern arises in unemployment rates by industry. These rates also show that the gap between Black men and women can, in part, be explained by Black men’s predominance in production industries, such as manufacturing and construction, which tend to show bigger gaps between White and Black workers.

The difference could have arisen because subjects in the Texas A&M experiment were told they were hiring for an entry-level job, said NYU sociologist Shatima Jones.

Employers tend to assume White workers come from a more privileged background, so when they see them apply for an entry-level job in middle age, they may think there’s something wrong with them. When White people are applying for an entry-level job in middle age, employers will think, “Why are you here? You should have accomplished more,” Jones said. But when they see a Black person applying for the same job, their expectations fall, and they implicitly accept that this middle-aged person should be doing entry-level work.

Florida State economist Patrick Mason, who has for decades researched the experience of Black Americans in the labor force, agreed. He said that while young White managers doing the hiring probably couldn’t imagine their own parents doing a menial job, they might find it easier to imagine a Black person their parents’ age doing that same work.

In the American Economic Review, economists at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School revealed deep unconscious biases by turning campus recruiting at the school into a real-world experiment. They asked employers to rate hypothetical résumés, and the ratings were used to match employers with actual job candidates. Recruiters hiring for STEM fields rated White men higher than identical women and minorities, despite saying they preferred diverse candidates, and employers tended to give White men more credit for prestigious internships.

Mason echoed many others when he said he wasn’t surprised to see young Black men facing the most discrimination of any group, even as young White men and women faced the least.

“My suspicion is that if you ask most people to describe a criminal, they’re going to describe a young Black male,” Mason said. “[It’s] the harshest, most negative stereotype.”

It appears to be widespread in the workplace. The late Harvard sociologist Devah Pager found employers were more likely to hire a White man with a felony conviction than a Black man with no criminal record at all, meaning the penalty for being a Black man was greater than the penalty for being a felon.

Cultural explanations for the middle-aged bump

Hughey, the University of Connecticut sociologist, has long analyzed racial attitudes and ideologies in White communities. He said employers’ preference for middle-aged Black workers should be seen an exception to the rule that, “for the most part, Black people are seen as really not a good fit in the economy.”

“White people are more likely to apply negative stereotypes to young adults and middle-aged Black people, compared to older Black people,” said Hughey, who has closely observed how Black people are discussed within White groups for his research. “This was particularly true when White people described Black people with which they worked or would potentially hire or fire.”

As Black workers near retirement age, the data shows, discrimination rises. Employers may avoid older Black workers because of the well-documented health challenges they face — they may fear Black workers of a certain age are more vulnerable to health-related absenteeism, economists said.

“Black workers also face a ton of barriers to working longer that aren’t there for White workers,” said Geoffrey Sanzenbacher, Boston College economist and fellow at the Center for Retirement Research. “Black workers typically have less education and therefore are often doing jobs that are more physical.”

He said the discrimination Black workers face ultimately gives them fewer assets and income in retirement. It makes them less likely to work, and pushes Black men and women into lower-quality jobs. It means they’re less likely to have a 401(k) and less able to save.

“This isn’t just about the wage gap. It’s about the intergenerational wealth gap and how inequality is exacerbated more and more over time,” Hughey said.

The cohort effect

Some economists point to another reason discrimination against Black workers could fall as they near middle age: Employers might perceive them to be a bargain. As a Black worker ages, he or she will on average work for less pay than a White worker with similar qualifications. Black workers we spoke with were quick to acknowledge that during the prime of their careers, in middle age, they were underpaid and underpromoted. Yet, they were skeptical that this gave them any advantage in the labor market.

“There is a pattern of Black people coming in with a lot to put on the table — in terms of education, drive, all those things — and they get passed over for someone who might not have half their education,” said Michael Walls, 65, of Madison, Wis.

Walls vividly remembers when his White manager left and the inventory-control department he worked for eliminated the position instead of promoting him. Walls was the only other employee in the department, and he’d been covering his manager’s responsibilities for years. In fact, he ended up training new staff on the department’s forklifts and software; he just didn’t get a manager’s pay for his efforts.

“That’s what we’re up against,” Walls said, adding that it’s hard to tell if your individual setbacks are driven by systemic racism, even if the statistics are clear at the national level. “It’s so subtle. A lot of this stuff is so subtle.”

This sort of story is common among older cohorts of Black workers, many of whom entered the workforce while the vestiges of Jim Crow still loomed large. They have been denied so many opportunities that even the most talented among them could be applying for entry-level jobs like the ones in the Texas A&M study.

“These are people who, if they had the same opportunities that we have today — they would be doctors and lawyers. And instead, they have a high school education,” Lahey said. “So you’re getting an extremely high-quality worker with these cohorts because they didn’t have opportunities that they should have had.”

Boston College’s Sanzenbacher noted that a disproportionate share of young Black people, particularly Black men, face early incarceration, or even death. Despite years of falling incarceration rates, Black Americans are still imprisoned at five times the rate of their White peers, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Among people age 15 to 24, Black men face the second-highest death rate of any group — just behind Native American men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They die at nearly double the rate of their White peers.

“If you’re a Black man in middle age," Sanzenbacher said, “an employer knows you’ve avoided those things. … They’ve avoided these pitfalls that our society has created for young Black men.”

Walls said he dodged many of the forces that keep his Black peers from working, such as criminal records and bad credit. He credits that to his early experience in the armed services.

Even when Black workers do climb the career ladder, their positions are more precarious, said Darrell Nelson, 65. He’s retired now, but in his time in the telecom industry, Nelson went through a major merger and saw what it did to his colleagues.

“There were a lot of structural changes, and in a lot of those changes, I saw a lot of Black folks being eliminated,” Nelson said. He added that it was partly because Black workers were less able or willing to move when the company demanded relocations.

“Black folks have to work twice as hard and twice as long, hours-wise, and put out a product twice as good as our White counterparts just to be considered equal or slightly better,” Nelson said.

The Texas A&M experiment did not include enough Black résumé screeners to calculate how a Black person would rate a Black applicant, but Lahey said that her results showed the same pattern of race and age discrimination whether you looked at Hispanic screeners, older screeners or screeners with real-world hiring experience.

Like the Texas A&M experiment, the real world has reflected a shortage of Black people in positions with hiring authority. Before she retired as a vice president at the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Charlotte Collins, 68, got used to being the lone Black woman in corporate situations.

Collins said the biggest barrier keeping women like her out of the C-Suite and off corporate boards was the recruitment process, which tends to follow the same established (White, male) networks it always has.

“I had to say, ‘I want to have representation of non-Whites and women. Don’t bring me a file full of White men. You’ve got to try harder.’ That whole business is just about building relationships,” she said.

Collins wondered what Lahey’s study would have shown if all of the people who reviewed résumés had been Black women, preferably over age 40. If more women like her were in hiring positions, Collins said, it would begin to change the skills and backgrounds valued by corporate recruiters.