Workplace Culture

Boomer Bust — Ageism in the Workplace

By Rita Pyrillis

Dec. 6, 2016

age discrimination
Tony Cortese of Herman Miller, left, and Amy Hiles-Maynard offer thoughts and experiences regarding age bias at work.

Amy Hiles-Maynard knew that the odds were against her when she found herself job-hunting at age 62. So she pulled out all the stops.

In addition to updating her resumé, Hiles-Maynard overhauled her social media pages with professional headshots and upbeat posts worded to convey youthful exuberance. She dyed her salt-and-pepper hair, revamped her wardrobe and scoured websites for older women that offered tips on acing job interviews and turning back the clock with clever makeup techniques.

“I’ve learned that mascara for someone who is older should never be worn on the lower lashes,” said Hiles-Maynard, a former travel industry executive. “It casts a shadow and makes you look tired.”

She searched for role models of a certain age and found her fashion muse in actress Susan Sarandon, who according to one article, favors white tuxedo shirts. Hiles-Maynard bought one.

She even resorted to stalking the parking lots of prospective employers, studying what people wear to get a sense of the company culture.

“I sat in my car with my cellphone and took the occasional photo of someone who looked particularly nice and noted differences between people in entry-level positions and those in business suits,” she said. “It was a humbling experience.”

While her methods might seem extreme, her struggles to rebuild a career at an age when many people plan to retire are likely to be familiar to people over 45.

The number of older workers is on the rise. As their ranks grow they will play an important role in the U.S. economy, according to the National Council on Aging. By 2019, more than 40 percent of Americans over 55 will be employed, making up more than one-fourth of the U.S. workforce, according to the not-for-profit advocacy group. In 2014, older workers made up 22 percent of the workforce, according to the council.

Today’s mature workers are generally healthier and more active than their predecessors and offer a wealth of experience and knowledge, yet they are far more likely to experience age-related job discrimination than their younger counterparts, according to a 2013 study by the AARP. In fact, age discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have increased dramatically in recent years. Between 1997 and 2007, 16,000 to 19,000 annual complaints were filed, compared to 20,000 to 25,000 filings per year since 2008, according to the EEOC.

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“It was clear that they were expecting someone younger. It seemed like they were thinking, ‘She can’t cut it.’ ” — AMY HILES-MAYNARD

The notion of retirement is changing with workers staying on the job longer than ever before. While some companies believe older employees provide a competitive advantage, most cling to outdated stereotypes, according to Ruth Finkelstein, associate director of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia University.

“We are comfortable making fun of old people and we do it routinely,” she said. “Ageism is alive and well. We show old people as decrepit, ugly, forgetful, yet at the same time many of the most powerful people in the world are old. The pope is old, the presidential candidates (were) old, most members of Congress are old, and the Supreme Court justices are old. There is this really weird disconnect.”

The most common stereotypes of older workers are that they are expensive to employ and to insure, they are slow learners and they lag technologically, according to Finkelstein.

“The idea that older workers are more expensive to employers has been hard to prove,” she said. “Many don’t want to work full time so if there is more flexibility, such as job sharing or phased retirement, you get the benefit of their knowledge and experience without the determinant of higher cost. Also, when it comes to the idea that older workers are most expensive to insure, as rules around health insurance change, Medicare becomes the primary payer and the employer becomes the secondary payer. Then these workers become bargains.”

Ageism, or discrimination based on someone’s age and not objective performance criteria, is one of the last “isms” to be tolerated in the workforce and is far more socially condoned than sexism or racism, according to a recent report by the Society for Human Resource Management Foundation. In fact, about two-thirds of older employees say they have seen or experienced workplace discrimination and an overwhelming 92 percent say that it’s common, according a 2013 study by AARP.

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“Our belief is that if we can continue to invest in employees irrespective of where they are with their career we will have a much stronger workforce.” — TONY CORTESE, SVP PEOPLE SERVICES, HERMAN MILLER

While the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects workers over age 40 from harassment and discrimination in all aspects of employment, such as hiring, firing, training and promotions, such cases are extremely hard to prove, said Laurie McCann, a senior attorney with AARP.

“Age discrimination is viewed by the courts and society more as an economic issue and we defer to the employer’s prerogative,” she said. “Even employees will say, ‘Well it’s their business and I understand why they want to save some money.’ But you wouldn’t say that if the employer said, ‘We want to save money so we’ll get rid of all of the women,’ but we tolerate it when it’s age.”

Age discrimination in hiring is even harder to prove, which accounts for the high number of older workers who are long-term unemployed, according to McCann. While the overall unemployment rate for older workers is slightly lower than the national average, nearly half of all those who have been out of a job for more than six months are over 50, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“You’re putting all these resumés out there and they’re going into a black hole,” said McCann. “You don’t know who got called for the interview or why, so it’s hard to prove that age was a factor.”

It didn’t take long for Hiles-Maynard to conclude that her age was working against her. Although she had decades of executive experience in the travel industry, nearly all her cover letters went unanswered. When she did get an interview, she said that the look on the interviewer’s face spoke volumes.

“I could tell that they were surprised,” said Hiles-Maynard, who was laid off from her job as vice president of marketing for a cruise ship line in 2013. “It was clear that they were expecting someone younger. It seemed like they were thinking, ‘She can’t cut it.’ ”

After losing her job, Hiles-Maynard spent time in the vacation rental business with her husband and had a short stint at an advertising firm, but her goal was to return to the industry that she loves. She was starting to lose hope when earlier this year she read an article in Forbes magazine about an internship program for older women at a New York advertising agency. The firm’s founders were inspired to create the program after watching the Robert De Niro film “The Intern.” In the movie, De Niro plays a retired executive who applies to a senior citizen internship program at a fashion startup.

Called an “enternship,” the program at Wunderlich Kaplan Communications is designed to help older women return to the workforce with updated skills, like using social media and personal branding, according to Gwen Wunderlich, cofounder and CEO.

“You can’t say I’m too old, I don’t know this,” she said. “You need to project confidence.”

Please also read: Creating an Age-Friendly Workplace

The notion that older workers are resistant to change doesn’t fly at furniture design firm Herman Miller, according to Tony Cortese, senior vice president of people services. The Zeeland, Michigan-based company is frequently recognized for its efforts to attract and retain older workers.

“Our belief is that if we can continue to invest in employees irrespective of where they are with their career we will have a much stronger workforce,” said Cortese. About one-fourth of its 8,000 employees worldwide have been there for at least 20 years.

In addition to continued training for older workers, Herman Miller also offers a phased retirement program that allows employees to gradually exit the workplace by reducing their hours.

“We recognized that we’re poised for a significant amount of potential retirements in the next decade,” Cortese said. “Phased retirement gives us more time to think about how to transfer knowledge and it helps the employee be deliberate about their retirement planning, both economically and socially. There is a significant psychological change that comes with retirement.”

One of the more unique programs that the company offers is a mentorship program called “water carriers.” The concept is based on the idea that older workers carry institutional knowledge that must be passed on to the younger generation.

“When somebody has been somewhere for a long period of time they’ve probably developed job skill expertise and know how to navigate the culture,” he said.

Employers who are not actively trying to retain and hire older workers are missing a golden opportunity to boost their bottom line, according to Kathleen Christensen, director of the Working Longer program at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a philanthropic organization based in New York.

“If they are thinking of older workers at all, they are thinking only about graceful exits,” she said. “It’s a major missed opportunity for American businesses. They are framing the question in terms of how will our older workers leave, rather that how can we harness the potential productivity of our older Americans. That’s the real challenge.”

Rita Pyrillis is a freelance writer in the Chicago area. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

 

 

Rita Pyrillis is a writer based in the Chicago area.

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