The Great Recession was painful to all workers, with the youngest suffering extremely high rates of unemployment, and the oldest groups of working Americans suffering from a long-term unemployment trend that seems to be becoming permanent for many.
Though the jobs picture is improving, older workers still find it difficult to get another job, often encountering employers who feel that they are out of touch with the modern workplace. Many are certain that they have been the victims of age discrimination, but find it difficult to prove their case.
Age discrimination: rampant, but unassailable
Older employees who lost their jobs during the recession have faced an uphill battle becoming reemployed within a reasonable amount of time. Many have joined the ranks of the long-term unemployed, while others have found work after experiencing joblessness for 45 weeks or more.
Why did so many boomers lose their jobs? Many have contended that they were forced out of their jobs, and have filed lawsuits alleging age discrimination. Others who retired on their own admitted that they did so because they felt their employers were trying to make them leave, according to a 2013 study.
Some companies are less subtle in their efforts to push older workers out the door, offering severance in exchange for a signature on a form that waives the employee's right to pursue age discrimination charges.
IBM, for instance, used to provide a listing of other workers being laid off, along with their job titles and ages, as federal law requires when offering severance and a legal waiver. IBM has recently decided not to provide the list to employees facing dismissal, offering arbitration, instead. The company cites privacy issues for the change, and notes that they no longer need to provide the list, since employees aren't being asked to waive all legal rights.
The purpose behind providing the disclosure list, of course, is to help fired employees over the age of 40 make an informed decision about whether or not they may have an age discrimination claim.
Anti-discrimination laws make little difference
You might think that federal and state anti-discrimination laws would be of help, but that doesn't appear to be the case. A recent study by David Neumark and Patrick Button for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco took a close look at just that issue – and found that stronger laws had just the opposite impact.
The researchers studied the experiences of workers aged 55 years and over during the last recession, as well as whether or not the states involved had stronger anti-discrimination laws than the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act. What they found was intriguing: Though states with more robust laws helped protect older workers before the recession, they were actually harmful during the throes of the Great Recession – particularly for older male workers.
Might these laws regain some of their former power once the economy fully recovers? It's possible, although the chronically unemployed will likely not benefit. As with all discriminatory behavior, however, bringing the problem out of the shadows will doubtless make it less acceptable. Meantime, an aging population will continue to feel the effects of ageism in the workplace.
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