• Jackie Luo

Ageism — the Big Elephant in the Room

September 19, 2020

We as a country have made a lot of progress in advancing gender diversity. Before 1920, women in the U.S. didn’t even have the right to vote. In 2020, a hundred years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, more and more women are sitting on corporate boards, winning congressional seats, and leading major corporations. While we still have a long way to go to close the gender pay gap, we collectively are more aware of this issue and some are taking actions to eliminate the bias. For example, a couple of years ago, Salesforce, led by the courageous leader Marc Benioff, ordered an audit on salaries of all its employees. Subsequently, it spent about $9 million to address the pay differences based on gender, race, and ethnicity. This is an example of backing up the belief with money and putting employees before profits.

In recent months, with the rising racial tension and “Black Lives Matter” movement, racial diversity has certainly emerged as a hot social issue, prompting many companies to openly declare their position. Bank of America pledged $1 billion to fight racial inequality in America. Some companies, like Nike, are giving workers paid time off on Juneteenth, for the first time ever. Many CEOs took the time to express their support for racial equality in emails to employees, shareholding meetings, and prior to earning announcements.

While many are doubtful at the real impact of these headline-garnering gestures, at least these are getting people’s attention.

However, with all the attention to diversity -- gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, we are missing one key element – age diversity.

This is not just an impression; it is backed up by facts. According to a study by PwC, only 8% of companies in the most diverse workplaces in Fortune magazine’s A Great Place to Work list consider age as a dimension of diversity.

Ageism, according to Marriam-Webster dictionary is, “prejudice or discrimination against a particular age-group and especially the elderly” and is the big elephant in the room. Nobody wants to openly talk about it. When “older workers” apply for jobs, they attempt to skip questions regarding age, such as the year they graduated from high school or college or how many years on the job. However, smart algorithms in recruiting filters will deduct the age anyway. Career coaches suggest they change their hair style or dress differently to look younger for job interviews. When they are rejected from a job, “cultural fit” is used as the reason. Is it really? They were a cultural fit 10 years ago, why not now? What has changed?

Age based discrimination has had a profound impact on the health of millions of older workers, jeopardizing their sense of well-being and retirement safety. Does this issue garner headlines? Hardly. Do you hear corporate CEOs talk about hiring older people? Rarely.

Age-based discrimination is getting worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some facts on unemployment among older workers in America.

  1. The pandemic induced layoff has hit older workers harder. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for workers age 55 and older was 8.8% in July, compared to 8.1% for workers between the ages of 35 and 44, and 7.8% for 45-to-54-year-olds.

  2. Older workers unemployed before March or during the pandemic, were less likely to find employment again, which forced them to early retirement. According to the latest report from the New School, 2.9 million older workers aged 55 and older have left the workforce since March. Here is how the number is calculated. In March, out of the 1.3 million older workers unemployed, 500,000 gave up looking for a job by June. Between March and June, nearly 5 million older workers lost their jobs. Out of these, 2.4 million left the labor force entirely.

  3. Older workers of color and older women make up a larger share of those forced into early retirement. According to the report from the New School, among older people of color, nearly 12% of women and more than 10% of men have left the labor force since March – that compares with 7.5% for White women and 5% for White men. When ageism is layered onto gender and race discrimination, older minority women are the most vulnerable. According to statistics provided by Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER), In 2016, the poverty rate for African American women over age 65 was 15%, for Hispanic women it was 20%, for Asian American/Pacific Islander women it was 18%, and for white women, it was 7%.

In describing the persistent unemployment facing older workers, most headlines use the phrase “retire early” making it seem like a lifestyle choice. However, for most older workers, it is involuntary. Most of the older workers who are forced to “retire early” simply cannot afford it. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), in 2016 (latest statistics available), nearly half (48%) of households headed by someone 55 and older lack some form of retirement savings. When afforded the opportunity, they would love to work. But the opportunity is scarce.

Rather than labeling the older workers leaving the workforce as “retiring early”, why can’t we face the truth and call this as it is? Age based discrimination is very prevalent in workplaces. Older workers face discrimination not only when they are employed, but also when they are looking for jobs, enabled by algorithm-based recruiting tools.

In July 2019, Google settled an age discrimination lawsuit with more than 200 job seekers over the age of 40.  The $11 million suit included provisions for training against age bias and forming a committee with respect to hiring and recruiting and ensure that age-discrimination claims are fully investigated. Separately, in September 2019, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that seven companies used Facebook ads to target younger Americans and men for recruitment purposes, excluding women and older Americans. 

Age based discrimination, or ageism, is real, and it affects every family. The problem of “retiring early” without sufficient retirement savings is a social problem. Consider the fact that by the year 2050, the number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to be 88.5 million, more than double this number in 2010. This problem of “retiring early” without sufficient retirement savings can only get worse in the next 30 years.

These facts tell a sad story, but they are often muted. Although some research organizations (the New School, nonprofit organizations like WISER and AARP) are advocating for older workers, we haven’t seen a sense of urgency among policy makers and opinion influencers.

That’s perhaps why ageism is the big elephant in the room – everyone knows but nobody wants to talk about it.

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