Why Older Workers Should Expect Age Discrimination

How to fight back against age discrimination

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I got this from an AOL reader:

I am 57 years old. I work in a large company. I am in IT and have had the responsibility of supporting our field staff. I have headed up various projects. I was "key" in the roll out of all mobile devices to personnel. I have had college interns assigned to me to mentor and have done a great job with them. They contact me to this day and tell me how I helped groom them for their current jobs.

All of this being said, we now have new, young management who have realigned our company. I was literally kicked to the curb. My manager was laid-off after 41 years of service. Another long-time executive of 58 years of age was pushed to the side, but eventually retired and went to another company. I was given a "token" position as a business analyst. Since this time, I've literally been twiddling my thumbs. I'd love to jump ship, but at my age, it's difficult. I am high energy. I have always gotten excellent reviews. I have always made myself available to my field personnel. The folks I have supported have only good things to say about my performance and support. I am sick about this turn of events. It's on my mind constantly. Is this the way our careers are supposed to end? I went from being over productive to this? I've heard our president say...think younger. His secretary retired and was replaced with some 25-year-old...speaks volumes. Young is good. We need younger folks to take over. But, like this? This is brutal.

I really cannot retire. I have a small pension, but still have a couple of things to pay off. My home is almost paid off, but I need a few years. I could go on, but it's so darn painful. I'm rambling. I am usually a lot more coherent and professional. If you could offer me any advice, I would appreciate it. I'm reaching out blindly looking for some answers and some guidance.

My first thought upon reading this was...

You Should Have Seen It Coming

It's so hard to point this out to someone who is clearly in a lot of pain, but this is not a new workplace phenomenon. Companies have been restructuring as a way to get rid of older employees they feel are under-performing for decades now. The "retire and get a gold watch" mentality has been gone for a long time now. Anyone who has been at a company more than 20 years these days should be paying close attention to their strategy for keeping themselves employable against younger candidates. The phrase, "out with the old, in with the new," comes to mind. In these situations, "younger" means less expensive and easier to handle. So, if you aren't positioning yourself as irreplaceable (priced right for the value) - then you're at risk of being let go to make room for a younger employee.

NOTE: There are laws against age discrimination that you can research and pursue. However, the process can be costly and take time. So, while you may want to consult with a lawyer, most older workers find it's better to find a way to deal with the discrimination instead.

Tips for Being "Ageless" at Work

If you want to avoid being affected by age discrimination, you need to focus on appearing as "ageless" as possible. Your goal has to be to avoid falling into the "older worker" category. The easiest way to do this is to make it clear you don't act like the traditional older worker they associate negatively with. Here are some tips to help you:

1) Remember, "people hear what they see." That's a famous quote by Doris Day and it applies here. Consider giving your entire look an overhaul. Get some younger family members to help you update your work attire, haircut, make-up, shoes, and anything else about your visual appearance that can make you look dated. You don't have to dress like a 20 year-old, but you do have to dress like a 50- year-old who is committed-looking and feeling young for their age.

2) Spend more time with the young people at work. Strike up conversations with them. Find common interests. (I wrote this article on AOL that maps out a technique to help you succeed at this.) Focus on their hobbies and activities outside of work. In short, show a sincere interest in their lives. Most older workers tend to go to work and leave. They don't want to be bothered by making new friends at the office. Especially with young people who they feel can't possibly understand their lives. Yet, these younger workers could be powerful allies to you. If they like spending time with you, they'll tell management you are great to have around.

3) Stop acting like tenure matters. Whether you realize it or not, you've most likely been giving the impression that the established way of doing things is the right way. A new management team is brought in specifically to get rid of outdated systems and ways of thinking. The moment you start touting the praises of processes and procedures that pre-date them, you're seen as the enemy. Instead, you should assume the first day of the new management team was your first day on the job too. Start looking for ways to improve things and show enthusiasm for the new management team's mission. Otherwise, you will find yourself on the "not one of us" list. (Here's how you could be labeled as "overqualified" by management for acting this way.)

4) Find a problem they need solved ASAP - and then solve it. The new management team wasn't here for all your past successes. It means nothing to them. You need to have new successes as quickly as possible. Preferably, solving a problem or alleviating a pain for the current management team that will show them your value. Try to find out what their main concerns are and then work to identify and fix something that will show your support for their business agenda. That kind of proactive behavior will score a lot of points. It's the exact reason they want young people on board - for their desire to be a hero to management.

5) Start looking for a job while you have a job. All of the above won't guarantee you'll keep your job, but it can help. If you don't feel you can do the above, then you need to start looking for a job immediately. Finding a job while still employed is much easier than finding one after being laid-off. Especially, if you are over 50 years old. Age discrimination is even worse for the unemployed.

Career Accomplishments Aren't Like Retirement Savings

Here's one last thing to consider: as we age, we often assume as we succeed on the job we're putting professional "credits" into our career account. We think that older means wiser - and with that should come some return on our investment. Far too often, I see older workers who feel they should be paid a higher wage and be able to do what they've done for years without having to learn new skills, increase their value, or even push themselves to new levels of career success. They assume if they just do their job and people like them, they'll make the same money and be able to do the same thing for as long as they want. But, that's not the case. Your career isn't like a retirement account where you can live off the interest of earlier investments. You must always be adding to your career account in the form of new accomplishments if you want to stay employable.

What other suggestions do readers have? How have you dealt with age discrimination?
Filed under: Career Advice
J.T. O'Donnell

J.T. O'Donnell


J.T. O'Donnell is a career and workplace expert who founded the top-ranked career advice site, CAREEREALISM.com. In 2009, she launched CareerHMO, the first on-line career care membership site which specializes in curing chronic career pain.

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I cannot believe a woman wrote this article. I had to check to see "who" J.T. O'Donnell was... it had to be a man??!! Very disturbing and frustrating article. I am in my mid-50's -- don't look my age, take good care of myself, play competitive tennis -- and have been in the IT consulting vertical for almost 15 years. I have great referrals and am very involved in CIO organizations and networks. Last summer, after finishing a consulting assignment, I thought I would make a career change and go back to retail, which was my background before I went into IT staffing. I have worked at Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys NY and a high-profile, privately-held designer retailer in Westport, CT.
First I went to J. Crew, who told me they could only hire me part/time at $9.00/hour to "lock up" the store when it closed, and I would be responsible for folding/putting away apparel at the end/day. Next I went to L&T and was offered a night shift position to put away shoes; I would not be selling shoes, just collecting those on the floor at the end/day to put into the stock room. Finally, I went to the Westport retailer (where I had worked previously worked 15 years ago). I was told by the Women's Department Manager that the 'girls' on the floor were sharks and very aggressive and that their older sales woman was about to retire. She told me that I would not make much $$ there because the sales "women" had their own customers, although I would be able to approach new customers. Something is very wrong with this scenario.
For the fun of it, I thought I would do my own "proof of concept" within my "industry". Actually, an Executive Search firm contacted me for a Business Development role with a high-profile staffing firm this year. I went through the paces, phone interviews -- and I was supposedly the #1 candidate for the job and was asked to come in for an in-person interview. I wore a great suit -- went to the interview prepared, confident with a smile. The interviewer was a woman. Her manner was all business, no small talk -- from my resume she could see all my accomplishments, my connections to CIO organizations and testimonials. We were done in 40 minutes. On my way out, I saw a man in the reception area -- seemed like a friendly guy, nice suit, maybe in his early 40's, waiting [I assumed] to be interviewed. I left a message with the Executive Search firm after the interview and wrote an excellent 'thank you' note to the "interviewer". I did not hear from anyone. It seems the IT staffing agency hired their #2 candidate. Was it my age? :) There is definitely discrimination against older women -- and it is as wrong as any other type of discrimination.

Wednesday at 12:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Rachel Margaret

I was thinking about this last night. While I've definitely been discriminated against in interviews (the guy asking me "so what year did you graduate from college?" When did you go to grad school?" is a classic example), and I am not even in my 50's, I wonder if part of the reason companies warehouse older workers on staff is that they feel someone has been too entrenched in a job in order to be 'fresh' in their perspective. A way that companies could circumvent this would be to require that people not stay in their jobs more than 3 years, and learn other jobs in the company. Cross-train them for different positions and require moving around. Maybe this sounds radical, but wouldn't you like to work for a company where you could move to different departments and learn new things every few years, and this was encouraged-- even required? It would create more of a sense of ownership in the company, not to mention being more interesting. I also think it would help because people would understand the needs of the company from a more enterprise-wide perspective. There's little chance of silo-mentality forming. Perhaps the idea that people grow 'stale' when they have been somewhere too long is really something companies ought to own and deal with in a more enlightened way than just laying people off. I'm not advocating that the accountants suddenly learn marketing, but in large companies there should be more of a chance to do this. In small companies, people should and do wear many hats. I guess I am tired of the status quo-- that one day we become old and less productive and get laid off. Just because this has been happening for decades, I don't see why it should continue. Advocate for change-- be 'disruptive'. That's the new buzz-word in business, and I think it's about time we started disrupting these old, outdated ideas.

Monday at 10:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Lower the retirement age to 55, this will create a boatload of jobs for the young. Stop giving incentives to employers to hire H*Any-letter Visas, this will increase the pool of available jobs. Stop providing incentives to business for shipping jobs overseas. Stop telling older workers to suck it up and die, they have been doing that since forever. Quit trading with countries that want to manipulate currency and create unsafe working conditions for people that make cheap goods, this might help the trade imbalance. Forbid all lobbyists from having contact with elected officials, create term limits, bring back Glass Steagle and prevent banks and investment firms from mixing retirement funds with savings and selling crap investments, this will help anyone that has not lost their savings from having it done again. And for all you out there who say this is going to cost too much, they are you fellow citizens, I have mine screw you is not a solution for the nation. Elect officials that care about the people instead of flapping their jaws and playing partisan politics as usual. If we do nothing, we deserve our own end...

March 18 2014 at 5:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I wonder how this author would say to women who face discrimination. Just "deal with the discrimination"? What if a black person is facing discrimination? Would O'Donnell recommend dressing like a white guy? These kinds of articles really promote and encourage age-based discrimination.

January 15 2014 at 4:03 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Just have to point out that the original writer asking for advice did not mention how long he had been on the job, and this columnist seems to assume that he had just been plodding along for 30 years in the same position. He could have been there, making a positive immpact for 5 years and been kicked aside, we don't now from his letter.

Anyway, good advice given in the article.

January 14 2014 at 8:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What really bothers me is that I know I can do the job and teach them a few things to make the company run better, but I would never portray that by saying or acting in such a manner. They have made up their minds before you even sit down. They already know your age from your resume/application. I'm not looking to be the star of the show or anything like that, I'm looking to be the personal assistant as required. I've been the glue/link/liaison...etc. I see so many businesses and companies with incompetent workers that it just infuriates me. Their customer service, detail to important matters, personal appearance...you name it it sucks and no it's not because I'm older - it's business not personal.

January 14 2014 at 3:47 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Sandra Feraldi

Age wasn't much of an issue prior to 2006
It's the fact of 1-not enough jobs 2 corporate downsize
And greed ! And 3-technology
4-out sourcing and every other issue over the past 15 years has lead up to this!!

January 02 2014 at 11:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Mix with the younger set. I have just completed 3 years at College. I am 61. I was the oldest in my class at lunch breaks I tried several times to mix with the younger one's in my class. That didn't work. One day during class One of the younger students complained about a teacher who was in my age group. I have known the teacher for 25 years.In other circles. This student said that she ignored her when she tried to say hello down town. I said that she would not have done it deliberately, she may have had something on her mind. I also said to the student you ignored her in class one day yourself. Look back. Some time has gone and about two weeks ago I saw the student down town. I said hello to her she completely ignored me. I said to myself so what

December 29 2013 at 8:10 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Career Charisma

The Dali Lamas has said: "The greatest gift you can give to a child is to prepare him for great change." And the rate of change is accelerating, in case you haven't noticed...and it's not getting faster just for kids.

I'm 64 years old, and if I can't and don't keep up with the speed of change around me, and add the kind of value that my employer wants -- and yes, must have -- then I shouldn't be working where I'm working, and they have every right to say that my job performance in less than satisfactory. That's not discrimination, folks, that's simple reality.

I just began my 3rd career 7 months ago, when I entered the field of higher education by joining the career center of an extremely large urban college. My previous 41 years were spent in HR, with a specialty in Employee Relations (21 years), and as a career management consultant for the world's largest outplacement firm (17 years), and 3 years in my own private career consulting practice, so I'm intimately familiar with all aspects of this issue, from the point of view of workers of all ages, whether just entering the job market, currently employed, laid off and job hunting in mid-career, or long-term unemployed.

The question those of us in the Boomer generation should be asking ourselves is: "Am I adding value to the place where I work?" If I'm not, I'm replaceable, and I will be replaced! It's NOT simply a matter of age, folks!! It's a matter of VALUE to your employer!!

Please remember that the only question a company ever wants to know about you before your'e hired to work for them is "WHAT CAN YOU DO FOR US?" Well, whatever makes you think that they stop asking that question once you're hired, and that that isn't the only question they EVER want to know? It's not a matter of WHAT DID YOU DO FOR ME DURING THE LAST 30 YEARS? It's a matter of WHAT HAVE YOU DONE FOR ME LATELY, AND WHAT WILL YOU CONTINUE TO DO FOR ME GOING FORWARD?"

I fully recognize just how incredibly hard it is to admit that one doesn't have the knowledge and/or ability any longer to be at the peak of performance. But please don't demonize either the younger generation, which desperately needs to do what we did 40 years ago, and forge their own careers and livelihoods, or the companies who need the new knowledge and abilities that younger workers bring.

The answer is to convince employers -- somehow -- to partner younger workers with older workers; to team new knowledge and ability with the wisdom and expertise that can only come with long experience, so that both benefit!! Boomers, put on your thinking caps!! Let's lead a new Renaissance, and produce a new "apprenticeship" model that will blend the advantages of both groups, so that the US is once more world's engine of productivity!

December 28 2013 at 6:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

A comment like "You should have seen it coming" sounds hauntingly like "I have a lot of black friends".
One comment comes from an "age-ist" and the other from a racist.

Would you also tell a person of African-American decent: "Well, this company is based in the South, so you should expect them to be racist, so look for a job elsewhere"? If your answer is "of course not!" Then age-ism should be handled exactly like racism.

It is UNAMERICAN to treat anyone as if they are less than a person. Prejudice of ANY people should be shunned by all Americans.

December 28 2013 at 5:08 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to KurtUehlein's comment

Don't let this story fool you. It's more about cutting wages. Employee A that's been with the company 20+ years gets X amount of dollars and X amount of days off (no production). Employee B is new and get's 30% of the pay and get's 25% less days off. More production at a lower cost for Employee B...

December 30 2013 at 9:20 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Sorry, having said that, there's business that LOVE to hire older folks. Their work ethic is more often than not, 10 times that of a younger person working.

December 30 2013 at 9:21 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jlaka272's comment

where do you find jobs for older eorkerd, been looking for over a year.moreen58

December 30 2013 at 7:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

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