Can't Find a Job at 50? Is it Ageism Or Just Your Own Fault?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about an article in the New York Times entitled “To Get A Job At 50, Make Lots Of Friends In Your 40s.” It discussed a new academic study which concluded – surprise! – that people over 50 have a harder and longer time finding work than their younger colleagues.

It was found that it took them 5.8 weeks longer to finds a job than those between the ages of 30 and 49, and 10.6 weeks longer than those between the ages of 20 and 29.

Old Woman, Woman, Tuxedo, Cigarette

I wrote about this not because of these not-too-shocking results, but because the article and one of the study’s authors seemed to blame older workers for their plight, without any evidence. Both pointed out – perhaps even correctly – that older people on average had smaller networks than younger people, and stay on the job longer – to put down roots – and thereby have skills become outdated. And therefore, they concluded, they have a hard time landing work.

I asked, however: “Is there any evidence of causation here?”  That is, is it a smaller network or job longevity which causes older workers longer to find a job? Or are the study’s author, and the Times reporter, simply drawing a conclusion without any empirical evidence, since they cited none?

A new article published by Reuters discussed similar unsurprising statistics and noted that “The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 20,588 charges of age discrimination in 2014, a rise from 17,837 a decade earlier. Although the number dropped from a peak of 24,582 in 2008, legal and employment experts said it is a common phenomenon that will increase with millennials eager to enter the workforce and baby boomers reluctant to leave it.”

It then pointed to a 2013 AARP survey which “showed that two-thirds of workers between the ages of 45 to 74 said they have seen or experienced ageism,” and stated that “Stereotypes and perceptions that older workers are not savvy about technology, cost more or are not as productive are fueling age discrimination.”

An academic was quoted as saying that “There is a presumption that job performance decreases with age despite all the research showing it doesn’t.”  An AARP attorney, Laurie McCann, said that “It could be that ageism versus other forms of discrimination is not taken as seriously or viewed as wrong as other types of discrimination, so we don’t attack it with the same intensity,” with the problem more acute in industries which place a premium on youth.

She concluded by saying that “Until we really, really say we are going to take it as seriously as gender, religion and race discrimination in the country, I don’t see it going away anytime soon.”

So does hard evidence exist that older workers have only themselves to blame? Anyone out there have an answer?  Or a comment?

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Richard Cohen

Richard B. Cohen is a partner in the New York City office of FisherBroyles, LLP, a national law firm. Richard Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex corporate, commercial and employment disputes for more than 35 years, and is a trusted advisor to business owners and in-house counsel both in the United States and internationally. His clients have included Fortune 100 companies, domestic and foreign commercial and investment banks, Pacific-rim corporations and real estate development companies, as well as start-up businesses throughout the United States. Email Richard at [email protected]