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The Age Conundrum

Age discrimination in the workplace is harder to identify and quantify. Blacks and women have a long history of being underpaid, but older workers may have been unfairly demoted but still earn more than their younger colleagues.
By Michael Winerip, New York Times News Service
UPDATED ON JUL 28, 2013 01:33 AM IST

It turns out that a young Max and a middle-aged Max can get away with saying things that an old Max cannot. At least that is the conclusion of a new study by Princeton researchers aimed at measuring age discrimination, one of the toughest forms of workplace bias to prove.

The subjects of the experiment — 137 Princeton undergraduates — were shown a video of a man who would be their partner in a trivia contest.

His name was Max, he was white, neither handsome nor ugly, wore a checked shirt and said he was from Hamilton, New Jersey.

What the students did not know was that there were actually three versions of Max, being played by different actors, a 25-, 45- and 75-year-old.

Each Max adhered to the same script with one exception. When describing himself, half of the time the Max character said he was the kind of person to share his wealth with relatives (the compliant Max); and the other half of the time, Max said he felt no obligation to share (the assertive Max).

The students were then asked their opinion of Max. For those who saw the 25- or 45-year-old Max, it made no difference whether he was compliant or assertive. But students who saw the 75-year-old actor gave the assertive Max a high negative rating.

The results, soon to be published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, illustrate the subtle bias older men and women may face in the workforce.

“If you want to be an aging gray panther, and speak your mind to your manager, that’s fine,” said Susan Fiske, a Princeton professor and a co-author of the study with Michael North, who recently completed his PhD. “But expect consequences.”

There is little doubt that such discrimination exists. When an older man or woman is laid off, it typically takes two to six months longer to find a new job than it takes younger workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the new job is likely to pay considerably less.

During the recent recession, many unemployed older people told a similar story. They sent in their résumé and got called for an interview, but when they walked in, potential employers saw their white hair and that was it.

Feeling discrimination is one thing, proving it another. “It’s simply harder to establish,” said David Neumark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Winning an age discrimination lawsuit has become much harder since a 2009 US Supreme Court case, Gross vs FBL Financial Services. Before that, the employee had to show that age was a factor contributing to the layoff. Now, the employee has to show that age was the determining factor leading to the layoff, a much tougher standard.

The older generation, those born from 1946 to 1964, accounts for the fastest-growing segment of workplace discrimination claims. In 2012, 22,875 people filed age claims with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, compared with 15,875 in 1997. That represents 23% of all the individuals filing claims in 2012 versus 19% in 1997. At the same time, the percentage of people filing race claims has decreased to 33% of all claimants, from 36%; it has held steady at 30% for sex discrimination.

With age discrimination claims on the rise, a growing number of academics are undertaking research projects aimed at better identifying it.

One grantee, Sarah von Schrader, a Cornell research associate, says more than 60% of equal employment complaints are related to job dismissals; only 10% involve hiring bias, which, she says, is the most difficult of age cases to document.

Joanna Lahey, an associate professor at Texas A&M, has created an innovative — though limited — audit model for calculating age bias. In a 2005 study, she sent out 4,000 résumés to businesses in Boston and St Petersburg, Florida, for fictional job applicants from 35 to 62. The applications were for entry level fields like data processing and fast food service — the sort of jobs requiring little work experience. The applicants were all women, since employers might plausibly assume an older woman “has been at home taking care of the family.”

Lahey found that a younger applicant was 40% more likely to be called for an interview than someone 50 or older. In Boston, the younger person needed to send 19 résumés to get an interview; for older workers it took 27 résumés; in Florida, the comparable numbers were 16 versus 23 résumés.

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