How Long Will You Continue to Work? Combating Age Discrimination

Age discrimination is gaining more attention in the media, as Baby Boomers’ influence in the workplace is dwindling. Millennials now comprise the largest segment of the workforce. Ask anyone over 50: it’s tough to compete with tech-savvy, confident 20-somethings who know how negotiate wages, benefits, and company culture. During several recent conversations within and around my Associate Network, the topic of age discrimination has been dominant. For Baby Boomers who still consider themselves “mid-career professionals,” job security, health insurance coverage, and financial stability are significant concerns.

Author’s note: This article is an excerpt from my book, Network Beyond Bias.

The author of the following embedded essay wishes to remain anonymous. I take that trust seriously, and I am happy to have a platform for this story to be told. I have added some links and subheadings, but left the content otherwise unchanged.


Facing Age Discrimination in a Job Interview

The interview was, in my opinion, proceeding well. I had done my research about the role and associated responsibilities; I was asking as many questions of the hiring manager as the hiring manager was asking of me; my skills matched what the hiring manager expected the ideal candidate to possess; and it seemed like a mutual respect had been established in a short time frame. In an instant, though, all that changed – all because of one question: “How long do you think you’ll continue to work?”

Thinking that somehow I had not heard the question correctly I asked, “Could you repeat that question for me?”

“Yes. How long do you think you’ll continue to work?”

The thoughts that immediately flew through my mind are inappropriate to share as anger swelled up to the surface. Waves of anger, in fact. It took me time to damp down the anger and become composed to the point of where a clear thought came to the forefront, “No way will I answer this question.”

There was a long period of silence. The answer to the question finally came out, “I refuse to answer that question.” I knew that I had just ensured the chances for landing the job were nil. Even if I had answered the question with a time frame, my odds would have only slightly improved. Why? Because it was apparent the hiring manager had determined I was of the age where I would presumably retire within the next five to ten years. It was equally clear this hiring manager was hesitant to take a chance on a worker who may retire in the not-so-distant future. I had run up against age bias regarding older workers in the workforce.

It is important to note I recognize the situation as an age bias regarding older workers. I do so as there is also age bias regarding younger workers. Think about all the quips one hears ranging from someone is a “dinosaur” (older worker age bias) to being a “newbie” (younger worker age bias).

Age Discrimination Is Illegal in the United States

So, age bias is age bias, right? Not so much. A web search for “age discrimination in the workplace” yields 510,000 results. You can find scores more by varying the verbiage in your web search. Nearly all of these articles and news items deal with age bias against older workers  defined as workers 40 and above, consistent with the Age Discrimination Employment Act of 1967 (see 29 U.S.C. § 631). Gosselin and Tobin, authors of “Cutting ‘Old Heads’ at IBM” (ProPublica, March 22, 2018) provide detailed documentation and research suggesting a pattern of targeting older, highly paid, good performing employees at IBM from 2012 through 2017. Older workers, it seems, may indeed be facing more age bias than younger workers.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. As a hiring manager myself, I see my job as finding the right person for any open position. I acknowledge and address any biases I may have about the “ideal” candidate in order to ensure no candidate is overlooked because of my biases. Recently I have asked recruiters to scrub resumes of dates in order to ensure I don’t try to figure out how old the applicant is or how long an applicant has been in a certain position. My experience with this approach has been positive as a more diverse group of applicants ends up in the interview pool. It benefits not only me but my organization as I do find the right person for the position.

I challenge other hiring managers to challenge their biases and find ways to give all applicants a fair chance. Had the hiring manager cited above done just then this blog post might not have happened. As it stands, am happy not to have been selected after such a question.


Age Discrimination Will Affect Us All, Eventually

Although I belong to Gen-X, I can see that the large populations of Millennial and Gen-Z workers poses an imminent threat to my own career longevity. As such, I am seeking to educate myself now so I have enough runway to manage the risk. I’m curious as to how others see themselves “aging out of the workforce.” Do you think you’ll be able to leave on your own terms? If not, how will you manage the gap between your last day on the job and your retirement?

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1 comment

  1. Connie glover - Reply

    What hiring managers like the unfortunate one in this story fails to understand is that those in the younger generations are much more likely to job hop, changing jobs for different experience and more money than a 3% annual raise. 50-somethings are more likely to stay 10-15 more years, maybe 20.

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