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Age Discrimination in the Workplace is on the Rise—But It’s Hard to Prove

With Americans working later in life than ever, ageism is becoming normalized

Ten years ago, Javier seemed destined for a long, successful career in digital marketing. At 25 years old, the California native had taken a $42,000-a-year job at a firm in Santa Barbara; his salary was raised to $54,000 in less than a year.

But the next few years proved hectic, as Javier bounced from job to job, with no clear career path. He quit his job in Santa Barbara after his long-distance girlfriend unexpectedly got pregnant in 2008, and “stepped up,” moving to the Inland Empire to marry her and raise their child, as well as his wife’s child from a previous marriage. He got another digital marketing job later that year, this time for a real estate listings website, but it vanished after the housing bubble burst.

“The next two years were by far the worst two years of my life,” he says. He sent out 1,800 resumes before he received a job offer, which he passed on because it paid a paltry $32,000 per year. “The job wouldn’t have covered paying for daycare and the commuting costs.” He didn’t work full-time again until September 2010, earning less than he was paid in 2008. He worked two more jobs after that, leaving the first after the company moved its office and the second in 2015 because of a dispute with his manager.

Javier set out on a job search again in January 2015, but found it even harder to find a job than in 2008 despite the job market’s having improved. “I started noticing I wasn’t getting called back for the positions I was applying for,” Javier says. “And I was qualified to a ‘T’.”

At first Javier thought he was being discriminated against because of his ethnicity, so he changed his name on his resume as a test, but it didn’t elicit any more interest.

The answer (or perhaps the problem) Javier arrived at was his age, 34 at the time. He became convinced that even in his mid-30s, he was already too old for many employers in his field. “These digital marketing companies are all young and hip, and they’re looking for kids because they can pay them less for a shitload of work,” Javier says. “I realized that because I’m 35, I’m becoming less and less employable.”

His claim is nearly impossible to prove, however. Age discrimination is simultaneously the most socially accepted and the hardest to substantiate form of bias in the workplace.

“It’s notoriously hard to identify for a laundry list of reasons,” says Michael North, an assistant professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “One is straightforward: Ageism is the most socially condoned form of derogating someone based on social category.”

All you need to do to find proof of rampant ageism in the culture is to go to the stationary section of your local drug store, and read all the birthday cards making fun of people turning older than 30. “It’s less socially acceptable to denigrate someone for gender, race or orientation — current political climate aside,” North says. Reports of age discrimination increased 44 percent from 1999 to 2014, nonetheless.

The difficulty of proving age discrimination can be seen in Coleen Bentley’s most recent job-hunting experience. Bentley, a 59-year-old human resources executive with more than 30 years’ experience, suspects she wasn’t hired to be the head of HR at Twitter because of her age. “But I don’t know that for sure. Maybe it’s just an assumption I have of technology companies in Silicon Valley. When I see who is leading many of the roles there, including HR, they’re all much younger than me. They tend to have retired by the time they’re my age.”

Experiences like Bentley’s and Javier’s are common in the tech industry, North says, where companies relentlessly pursue what’s young and new, and can thus perceive people as young as 35 as stodgy and out of touch, he says. Or employers might worry that you won’t have the time for someone younger. Javier believes his age leads many employers to accurately assume he’s a father, and that his familial duties will detract from his work performance. “In tech, they need people willing to work 16 hours a day, without overtime,” he says. “Someone with a family is not going to be able to dedicate that much time to their job.”

The mitigating factor in sussing out age discrimination is that age is inextricably bound to experience and pay. Older workers might be qualified for a wider array of positions, but they also command higher salaries than some employers want to pay for those jobs. It’s not age discrimination, per se, but their salary demand (tied to experience level, which is tied to age) may disqualify them for certain jobs nonetheless. “I had one headhunter tell me, ‘I know you can do this job, but I can find someone who gets paid a lot less to do it,’” Bentley says. “He wasn’t saying it was my age. He was saying I had more experience than the job required and would be bored very quickly.”

Other times, companies conceal their ageist hiring and promotion policies with coded phrases such as, “We wanted to bring in some new blood,” or saying a candidate wasn’t the right “cultural fit,” North says.

In Javier’s case, hiring managers could simply say it was his spotty professional history, not his age, that made him an unattractive candidate. Proving one from the other is virtually impossible.

North thinks ageism in the workplace will only get worse as our current workforce ages. Americans are working later in life than ever before, and the resulting generational divide between new employees and industry veterans contributes to the increase in age discrimination. “We’re at this zeitgeist of an aging workforce and more generations bumping up against each other in the office,” adds North.

If you think there’s a lot of tension between millennials and Boomers in the office right now, wait until 2022, when Gen Z graduates into the workforce, many millennials are in their 40s, and 31.9 percent of Americans 65 to 74 are still working. That figure is up from 20.4 percent in 2002 and 26.8 percent in 2012.

As for Javier, he plans to just keep applying, hoping to find a job where his experience is valued. “You just have to keep going. There’s no good advice for being an older applicant.”