How to Avoid and Fight Age Discrimination in the Workplace

How to Avoid and Fight Age Discrimination in the Workplace

Over 50 years ago, in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which forbade employment discrimination against anyone at least 40 years of age in the U.S.

Unfortunately, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), “age discrimination remains a significant and costly problem for workers, their families, and our economy.”

Nonprofit organization AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) found in its survey that nearly one in four workers age 45 and older have been subjected to negative comments about their age from supervisors or coworkers, and that about 3 in 5 older workers have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace.

Over three-quarters, (76 percent) of older workers saw age discrimination as a hurdle to finding a new job, while more than half were prematurely pushed out of longtime jobs and about 90 percent never earned as much again.

Meanwhile, because of the population growth in the older age group, there are more older employees in the workplace than ever before. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that over 9.7 million workers were 65 and older in 2018, while 26.6 million were 55-64 years old.

The Pew Research Center also found that more older Americans are working now than in previous decades.

Age discrimination is not only detrimental to these workers’ financial futures but their health and longevity as well. According to a 2007 study, older people who don’t feel useful are three times more likely to develop a disability and four times more likely to die prematurely.

Every employee needs to be aware of age discrimination and how to deal with it, as if you haven’t experienced it yet, chances are you will, eventually. We explore the common struggles that older workers share and how you can fight back.


What is Age Discrimination?

Also called ageism, age discrimination involves treating an applicant or employee less favorably because of his or her age.

The ADEA prohibits this type of discrimination at any time, including when hiring and firing; determining pay, job assignments, promotions, and benefits; and training. It is also unlawful to harass someone because of their age, no matter who the harasser may be, from the supervisor to the co-worker or even a customer.

Just because it’s against the law, however, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. There were over 20,000 complaints of age discrimination filed with the EEOC in 2016 alone, showing that many workers are dealing with this kind of discrimination every day. With the increasing use of the Internet for applications and background checks, that discrimination has now moved online.

In a recent study, researchers sent over 40,000 resumes to apply for more than 13,000 job openings posted online in 12 cities. They responded to each posting with three resumes representing different age groups (young, middle-aged, and senior). The results showed that even though all three had similar skills, older candidates received far fewer callbacks than young or middle-aged workers.


What are the Signs of Age Discrimination?

Some signs of age discrimination include the following:

  • Job reassignment: You’re assigned to a task that is unpleasant or far below your experience level. The implication may be that the company wants you to quit.
  • Negative comments: The boss asks when you’re going to retire, or you start to hear consistent wounding words directed at your age that seem meant to make you uncomfortable. In general, a single comment doesn’t qualify—it’s more of an ongoing issue.
  • Firings: If older workers are being fired while younger workers are being hired, age discrimination is likely taking place.
  • Salary freeze: Younger workers are getting raises while older workers aren’t seeing the same increases. This isn’t always age discrimination, but if you had a banner year at the company and yet failed to get a raise while your lower-performing, younger colleagues did, something may be afoot.
  • Poor performance reviews: You’ve consistently aced your performance reviews, then a new boss comes in and suddenly you’re written up as lacking in many ways.
  • Favoritism: Younger employers are receiving the best equipment, given the best leads, or assigned preferential tasks, while older workers with more experience who are more qualified are ignored.
  • Isolated: High-performing older workers are suddenly left out of meetings and important decisions for which they were previously consulted. Sometimes, an older worker has moved away from the department or group to which they belonged, or asked to relocate to a different office entirely.
  • Position eliminated: This is a common practice around the country. The company eliminates the job by changing the title, tells you your job is gone, then turns around and hires a younger person to work in the same capacity with a different title.

All of these experiences can be demoralizing and embarrassing, and you may be tempted to do what the company wants—retire or leave. But you don’t have to take this sort of treatment lying down.


How to Make Age a Non-Issue at Work and When Job Searching

Though you can’t control how your boss or your coworkers behave, there may be some things you can do to make sure that age doesn’t affect your work performance or your ability to get a new job.

1. Keep Your Skills Fresh

Technology is moving at a faster pace than ever before, which means that the smart employee is the one who is always learning. Older people have a reputation for being “stuck in their ways,” so don’t give them a reason to think that of you.

Take some classes in your free time, ask for some additional training at work, or sign up for an online course to brush up on those skills that you need on the job but may not have. Make sure you have done everything you can to keep up with the technological and other changes in your field.

2. Focus on Your Skills, Not Your “Qualifications”

One of the traps older workers can fall into when seeking a new job is the “over-qualified” trap. The employer reviews your experience and determines that you are too qualified, as the job in question requires skills below what you have to offer.

Sometimes this is true and sometimes not. If you want the job, you’re better focusing on your skills and achievements, rather than your years of experience. During your interview, focus on what you bring to the job. Instead of saying that you have 25 years in sales, list your specific achievements. Emphasize your creative approaches to problem-solving and your ability to adapt to new challenges.


3. Get Some Help on Your Resume

The old way of writing resumes is gone. If your resume consists of multiple pages with lots of text in small font, that’s a clear giveaway of your age.

The ideal resume fits onto one-two page, and instead of listing every job you’ve had, list your “experience highlights” instead. Use the executive summary or objective section at the top to provide an energetic and pointed summary of why you’re perfect for the job.

Consider leaving your birthdate off your resume. It’s none of the potential employer’s business, and there’s no sense in advertising it. Include your experience highlights and let it go at that.

There are many resume editors online these days, many of them affiliated with job search sites. Invest in some help and you’ll be more likely to get the job you want.


7 Ways to Fight Age Discrimination

No one wants to be a victim of age discrimination, but if you’re experiencing it, you may want to fight it. This is your career and your life, and you have a right to defend it.

Below are seven steps you can take.

1. Talk to a supervisor.

This is always the best first step, as it can help keep a minor situation from turning into a major one. Give your supervisor a chance to do the right thing by asking them about the situation, sharing your concerns, and listening to their response.

2. Keep track of everything.

If there is only one minor incident—a discriminatory comment, for example—that’s not enough for an official complaint. Make note of it and start keeping track of everything that happens from there. Retain any records, emails, and other communications that may be related to age discrimination.

Do be cautious when recording conversations secretly. That’s usually against state laws or company policies. Be careful too of any rules about transferring company emails or documents to outside parties or a private email if that violates company rules.

If you can’t take some information with you because it’s confidential, simply make note of the date of the email and the names of the documents.


3. Lodge an official complaint with the company.

If your efforts to solve the situation directly don’t work, go through your company’s formal complaint process with either the human resources department or a higher-level manager. Get all your concerns down in writing. This gives the company the chance to right the situation before getting anyone else involved.

4. Talk to an attorney.

This doesn’t mean you’re ready to file a lawsuit, but an attorney can help educate you on your options. Most lawyers will offer an initial consultation for free or for a reduced price. Search online for the best individual, or check with the National Employment Lawyers Association website ( and search the Find a Lawyer directory.

5. Check with the EEOC.

You can submit an inquiry with the EEOC before filing a formal complaint. They can give you advice on your situation and what you may want to do about it. Check with your local EEOC office or find more information on their website.


6. Consider mediation.

The EEOC often offers mediators that can help resolve a dispute between you and your employer. If you can agree this is a cheaper and faster solution.

7. File a lawsuit.

If mediation fails, talk to your lawyer about filing a lawsuit. To do so, you must have already filed a formal complaint with the EEOC. A lawsuit is usually the last resort, so explore all your other options first.


Ageism is never OK, but all too often is a reality for many of those in the workforce. Understand your value and know that you deserve to be treated fairly and with respect. Do your best to stay on top of any industry or technology trends that are relevant to your position, and share any concerns you have with those who are there to protect your rights.

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