Age Discrimination Goes Online - Jill Quadagno, Ph.D. | October 2022
Florida State University
Author of: Aging and the Life Course: An Introduction to Social Gerontology
In February 2022, The New York Times reported on a scheme concocted by top executives at IBM to replace older employees with millennials. The scheme, revealed through leaked documents and internal emails, would turn “dinobabies” into an “extinct species.” As one executive explained, in recruiting new employees the goal was to shift the mix toward a higher percentage of early professionals, meaning young people (Scheiber, 2022).
The IBM plan came to light when older employees sued under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1968 (ADEA). The ADEA banned discrimination based on age in hiring, promoting, and firing workers age 40 to 65 without good cause. Since then, thousands of older workers have filed ADEA complaints (von Schrader and Nazarov, 2016). Most of these complaints involve workers who feel they were fired unfairly. Fewer involve hiring because age discrimination in hiring is more difficult to prove. Job seekers usually have little or no information about why they were rejected or who was hired instead. They may feel they were discriminated against but be unable to prove it (Kita, 2019).
In the past, when job openings were advertised in print, overt discrimination was comparatively easy to identify. For example, a company might set an age limit on applicants or, in a more subtle ploy, advertise for workers with a maximum of 3 years of experience, thus ruling out most older people. Now that technology has moved recruitment to the Internet, searching for jobs and submitting online applications has become standard practice. Theoretically, this appears to be an objective method that should level the playing field so that only qualifications and experience matter (Roumayah, 2021). That is not how it has worked in practice, however. In one study, researchers submitted over 40,000 resumes applying for more than 13,000 job openings posted online in 12 cities. They sent three resumes for each job listed representing different age groups: young, middle-aged, and older. Even though all “applicants” had similar skills, older candidates received the fewest callbacks (Terrell, 2017).
Employers have adopted other strategies to bypass the ADEA. Some only advertise on web sites that are accessible to college students so older people never see the ads. Others use drop down menus when requesting an applicant’s birthdate or date of graduation. These menus can be used to block older workers from even applying. For example, if it’s not an option to choose a birth year before 1980, older job seekers will be unable to complete the application. Employers also target ads to specific age groups. One site sought applications from “digital natives,” meaning younger people who grew up using the Internet and were up to date on current technology. T-Mobile used Facebook to recruit applicants for retail positions, saying it wanted to reach people 18 to 38, a blatant disregard of the ADEA (Guynn, 2017). Only when T-Mobile and Facebook were sued were the ads dropped.
Although ad language and required age fields are discriminatory, they are also visible and can be challenged. Online job sites also actively discriminate against older people in more insidious ways. One recent study found that three-quarters of applications are weeded out automatically before anyone ever sees them. The weeding out is done through sophisticated algorithms that can steer job ads toward certain candidates, home in on specific credentials or skills but also screen out older applicants (Bogen, 2019).
Instead of evening-out opportunities, online hiring has made it easier to discriminate (Rosales and Fernandez-Ardevol, 2020). Why does age discrimination remain an intractable problem? One reason is employers’ beliefs about older workers. Compared to younger workers, employers view older workers as being less flexible, less energetic, less productive, and less tech-savvy (Johnson, 2016). Yet research has shown that older workers are reliable, mature, and diligent and that age has no effect on work performance (North, 2019).
It is not only prejudicial attitudes that contribute to age discrimination, however, but also the fact that older workers are more expensive. In 2021, the median salary for a 23-year-old was $30,000, compared to $60,000 for a 50-year-old. Several factors are responsible for the salary differential. One is that younger workers are more likely to be in entry-level jobs and less likely to be in managerial positions. Another is that over their careers, older workers have been rewarded financially for experience through raises and promotions to higher-level positions. For employers, then, the calculus is how balance a desire to contain personnel costs with the need to maintain a qualified workforce. Regarding health insurance, there is no ambivalence: older workers are a financial liability. Older workers also cost more to insure. An insurance company that charges $400 a month to cover a 21-year-old will charge twice that amount for a 50-year-old (Norris, 2022). As a result, companies with an older workforce pay substantially higher premiums than “younger” companies.
In 2021, Congress attempted to solve the problem through legal remedies. The House of Representatives passed the Protect Older Job Applicants Act, which would eliminate loopholes in the law and make it easier to sue. Although President Biden promised to sign the bill, it was never taken up in the Senate (Maurer, 2021). Even if the law could be updated to keep pace with evolving technology, it is doubtful that age discrimination could be defeated. If employers hold negative views of older workers, like the IBM executives, they will be reluctant to hire and retain them.
As people live longer and healthier lives, early retirement has become impractical. Lessening the societal burden of an aging population depends on older adults’ ability to work—not only to support themselves and their families and save for retirement, but also to maintain an adequate balance between the number of workers and the number of retirees. Even as policymakers enact measures like raising the age of eligibility for Social Security to encourage older workers to remain in the labor force, age discrimination thwarts these efforts. Thus, age discrimination is not merely an individual problem but also an economic problem that affects the entire nation.
Questions for Discussion:
Have you or any older family members applied for any jobs online? What was the outcome?
Is it possible to prevent online age discrimination in hiring? What measures could be taken to protect older job seekers’ right to work?
If the United States had national health insurance, how could this affect companies’ willingness to hire older workers?
Bogen, Miranda. (2019). “All the Ways Hiring Algorithms Can Introduce Bias.” Harvard Business Review May 26, 2019. https://hbr.org/2019/05/all-the-ways-hiring-algorithms-can-introduce-bias
Guynn, Jessica. (2017). “Facebook Ads Targeting Younger Workers Discriminate against Older Workers.” USA Today, December, 2017. https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2017/12/20/facebook-ads-targeting-younger-workers-discriminate-against-older-workers-lawsuit-alleges/971586001/
Kita, Joe. (2019). “Workplace Discrimination Still Flourishes in America.” AARP Special Report. http://www.aarp.org/work/working-at-50-plus/info2019/age-discrimination-in-america.html
Maurer, Roy. (2021). “House Approves Bill Protecting Older Job Applicants.” Nov. 5, 2021. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/talent-acquisition/pages/house-approves-bill-protecting-older-job-applicants.aspx
Rosales, Andrea and Mireia Fernandez-Ardevol. (2022). “Ageism in the Era of Digital Platforms.” Convergence 26 (5-6): 1074-1087.
Roumayah, Tad. (2021). “Why Age Discrimination is Baked into Many Online Job Sites.” https://www.sommerspc.com/blog/2017/07/why-age-discrimination-is-baked-into-many-online-job-sites/
Scheiber, Noam. (2022). “Inside IBM, Plan to Oust Older Workers.” New York Times, Feb. 14, 2022, p. B1. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/12/business/economy/ibm-age-discrimination.html
von Schrader, Sarah and Zafar Nazarov, (2016). “Trends and Patterns in Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) Charges.” Research on Aging 38 (5):580-601.
Terrell, Kenneth. (2017). “Age Discrimination Goes Online.” AARP. https://www.aarp.org/work/age-discrimination/online-fd/