Russell Sinclair says he knows what ageism looks like. The 46-year-old has worked at several tech startups, and when he interviewed for a senior-level role at a New York City startup, he noticed that “everyone there was young, in their twenties.”
The age of the interviewers didn’t faze him until he heard several people use the phrase “young, dynamic environment,” which he felt was a “code phrase that gets thrown around … really what they mean is ‘this is no place for old people.’”
After the interview, the recruiter told Sinclair that the company wasn’t a good fit for him. He landed a vice president role at another company but says he’s encountered subtle ageism a couple of times during his job search.
With unemployment at historical lows — it dropped to 3.7 percent in September, according to the latest stats from Bureau of Labor Statistics — the labor market has been tightening. Yet many small businesses across industries says they can’t fill jobs, and many workers who are over age 40, and especially past 50, lament that finding a job remains difficult.
Are companies missing an opportunity to get great hires because of bias?
Yes, according to some employment experts.
Stan Kimer, president of diversity and career engagement consultancy Total Engagement Consulting, believes the problem is driven by stereotypes. “People might say ‘I’ve met a few older workers, they’re set in their ways, they’re slow,’” he says. “It’s very easy for a person to color the whole group that way.” That attitude can result in failing to interview older candidates or making candidates feel unwelcome during the interview process.
“Companies seem to think they’re in a better position by hiring cheaper labor in this younger workforce and they don’t seem to value the experience and want to compensate the more senior-level people.”
Aside from stereotypes, economics may also be a factor. “They’re replacing the older generation with the Millennial workforce because they’re cheaper,” says Tricia Lucas, founder of tech recruiting company Lucas Select. “Companies seem to think they’re in a better position by hiring cheaper labor in this younger workforce and they don’t seem to value the experience and want to compensate the more senior-level people.”
However, that’s not always the case. Some experienced workers are open to part-time work or flexible arrangements via phased retirements and may not command higher compensation than their younger counterparts, especially if they’ve empty nesters.
Of course, ageism doesn’t end with the hiring process. Older employees may also feel bias in their day-to-day work. In a 2017 Indeed survey of over 1,000 currently employed tech workers, 43 percent of respondents worried about losing their job because of age. American workers filed 18,376 cases alleging age discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year.
“It’s intimating for a thirtysomething manager to want to hire someone who could theoretically take their job.”
Lucas says age bias is particularly rampant in the tech industry. “These is a perception that you get this younger, more digitally up to speed person in the role and they’re going to be cheaper and able to catch on quicker,” she says. “You’re starting to see companies putting Millennials into senior positions. It’s intimating for a thirtysomething manager to want to hire someone who could theoretically take their job.”
The subtle and often indirect nature of age discrimination can make it hard to prove. Still, a trio of economists attempted to study the issue by sending out some 40,000 applications with fictitious resumes for young (aged 29-31), middle-aged (aged 49-51) and older (aged 64-66) candidates to lower-skilled jobs. Their findings were published in 2017 and show that the callback rate was lower for older candidates and particularly for older women.
This means employers and workers are missing out. “I do believe there is great value to having a good mix of younger, middle aged and older employees,” says Kimer. “Often the mature employee can bring vast institutional, product and marketplace knowledge to the table .”
Lucas adds that older workers tend to make good mentors for younger workers and have a strong network that can benefit their employer. “Senior hires are dependable, flexible, understand what it means to work a job and can’t afford to retire now,” she says.
The key to creating a more inclusive hiring strategy is recognizing implicit bias and taking steps to mitigate it, says Kimer. “It does involve training of people and then finally all the management team so that everyone in the company has an understanding that a strong mix of people is what’s going to help the company succeed,” he explains. “You don’t want to have all mature workers. The best approach is to … have a great mix where they can each bring something to the table and work together to make the company more productive and profitable.”