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Brett Arends’s ROI: Help wanted: No over-50s need apply


How are older Americans supposed to keep working until they’re 70 (or older) if nobody is going to employ them over 50? Does anyone in Congress have any thoughts about this? Or, for that matter, does anyone else?

I was thinking about this great puzzle after yet another document dropped into my lap, sort of, showing all the clever and devious ways employers can get around the age discrimination laws.

Read: Must be ‘fit and active’ or ‘digital native’: how ageist language keeps older workers out

Economics professors Ian Burn (University of Liverpool in England) and Daniel Ladd, Daniel Firoozi and David Neumark (all UC Irvine) conducted a clever experiment where they placed hundreds of fake job postings in cities all across America for some basic, low-skill jobs: security guard, administrative assistant, retail. In half of the ads they used careful, neutral language. In the other half they used coded words and phrases designed to let older people know that they needn’t bother applying.

Applicants needed to be “fit and energetic.” They needed to be “digital natives” with a “background in social media” (whatever that means). They needed to be “up-to-date with current industry jargon” and ready to deal with a “dynamic” workforce.

And so on.

The key result is that the coded ads attracted a lot fewer applicants over 40. The average age of the applicants dropped by 2 to 3 years, and the number of applicants apparently over 40 fell by between 7 and nearly 10 percentage points.

Naturally there was some guesswork about the ages, but in the study they ran calculations based on high school graduation dates and other indicators.

The AARP has already highlighted a handful of key phrases in job postings that discriminate against older workers, including obvious ones like “recent college graduate” and “five to seven years’ experience.” But as the new study shows, employers don’t have to be that obvious.

Read: Some older workers are being welcomed back to the workforce

“A young and dynamic company is looking for a fresh and energetic new recruit…”

The latest study adds to the growing pile of evidence that many employers don’t want to hire older workers, and often won’t, with the obvious result that older workers find it very hard to get work.

It also shows that there are so many ways around the Age Discrimination in Employment Act that the 1967 law offers scant protection to older workers—or would do, even if the Supreme Court hadn’t already gutted it in 2009.

Of the thousands of age discrimination cases filed every year with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, typically only around 10% end with either a settlement or a finding of reasonable cause. (You could take that as evidence that most of the claims are bogus, or that age discrimination cases are hard to enforce, or some mixture of the two.)

Read: Trying to fill open jobs at your company? One of the 15 million retirees between age 55 and 70 might be able to help.

Laurie McCann, a senior attorney at the AARP, told Congress three years ago: “Quite possibly, ageism is one of the last acceptable forms of prejudice in our society.”

I’m not entirely sure why the “quite possibly” is even there. Maybe she was being polite.

It’s probably going to be hard to get politicians interested in this issue. People like Nancy Pelosi (82), Chuck Schumer (71), Mitch McConnell (80) and Joe Biden (79) aren’t finding it hard to get lucrative, easy work even at their advanced ages. So why can’t everybody else?

But there’s one thing these politicians keep forgetting about us over 40s. We vote. Big time. Last election, the gap in voting rates between the over 40s and the “dynamic” kids under 30 was more than 20 percentage points.

Memo to Washington: Ignore us at your peril. 

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