An Open Letter (and a Rant) on Age Discrimination at Work

Want to live past 100, move to Italy in the New York Times

This letter was published by the New York Times advise column ..... Age Discrimination has no borders....

People need to stop prefacing workplace conversations with older people with terms like “Hon,” “Dear,” or “Sweetie.” Ageism is real and despicable, and it is becoming more and more prevalent.

Those of us who are still in the work force particularly loathe those terms. At 66, I am in excellent health. I dress well, walk fast to my workplace and pride myself on every compliment. (I earned them!) Yet too many professionals presume I am hard of hearing, frail, forgetful or otherwise impaired to the point where they address me as one would a small child. Could it be the silver bob? Then presume I’m Miranda Priestly, not your great-grandma.

And yes, of course I have email, and yes, I actually would prefer text, and yes, I am going to swirl around you fast enough on my sneaker-clad feet to make you spin if you do not stop texting and crawling along Fifth Avenue. And hell no, I do not want a childproof cap on anything that threatens to ruin my expensive manicure or sprain my hand worse than the heaviest weights I lift at the gym, because no, I do NOT have any children or grandchildren!

— New York

I know I’m supposed to be the “expert” here and behave “professionally,” but: New York, will you be my best friend? I like expensive manicures, admire Miranda Priestly, have never called anyone “sweetie,” and aspire to both a chic silver bob and your level of pithy and acerbic writing. Call me.

Now then: Ten columns into this gig, I have a solid archive of questions about age discrimination, and very few good answers. It is a huge issue, and it is absurdly difficult to combat — truly a terrible combination for an advice columnist! New York, you’re surely right that you’re being patronized for your age, and London, you’re surely right that your age unfairly plays into how your job applications are evaluated. The problem, as I learned when I turned to an outside expert for guidance, is that age discrimination is uniquely difficult to prove — by design. A 2009 Supreme Court decision endorsed a higher standard for showing advanced age is the cause of disparate treatment in the workplace than the threshold for other types of discrimination. “As a society — and I include the judiciary — we seem to view age discrimination as less serious and less wrong than other forms of discrimination because an employer has a right to run their business the way they want,” says Laurie McCann, a senior attorney for AARP Foundation.
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London, you’re in the toughest possible position because you can’t say for sure that any given company discriminated against you, just that the pattern seems clear. “Hiring discrimination is the most difficult to prove because you rarely have any evidence,” Ms. McCann says. “You don’t know who got hired instead of you, you don’t have the comparison of if they’re younger or less qualified.”

So what is an older person who still has bills to pay supposed to do? Even seemingly tiny changes can help. Ms. McCann’s advice: Keep up with trends in résumé-writing (for example, opening with a career objective is passé, she says); emphasize your technological skills to the point of overkill; develop a social-media presence. Leave graduation dates and other giveaways off your résumé so you’re not making it easy for employers to reject you. Some online hiring platforms won’t allow you to move through the system without including those dates — which AARP has asked the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to address — so avoid them whenever possible. And everyone can take a lesson from New York: Bite back when someone makes prejudicial assumptions or treats you unfairly at work!

Frustratingly, none of these practical strategies address the deeper societal issue. “We haven’t made many inroads in fighting those stereotypes [that older workers] are not flexible, that they’re stuck in their ways,” Ms. McCann says. Neither of you can solve that one on your own, so find some allies. London, start canvassing acquaintances in your field and age cohort about how they got their jobs and whether their companies are hiring. Consider forming a support group that can commiserate but also, perhaps, lobby for change. And volunteer to coach and mentor others in your industry, whether your peers or younger people who could benefit from your experience. That will expand your network, provide another impressive line for your résumé, and show that you still have some irreplaceable skills.

There are small signs of broader change. Google recently settled an age-discrimination lawsuit by agreeing to pay $11 million to 200 job applicants and institute training on age bias. A pending age-discrimination suit against the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers — which boasted on its website that the average age of its employees was 27 and that 80 percent were millennials — may include several thousand plaintiffs. Stay plugged into these efforts, and encourage others to do the same.

And while you have no obligation to keep things in perspective when you’re trying to find a job, try to remember that the youth are not the enemy. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put them in their place when they suggest you aren’t fluent in emoji, New York, but they’re frustrated by being patronized and passed over, too. Ms. McCann has a 22-year-old daughter who’s looking for a job, and she says she’s been struck by how similar her experience is to those of the age-discrimination plaintiffs she works with at AARP. We can only burn down the system if we all work together — led by a Miranda Priestly type with flawless nails.

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