Age discrimination persists 50 years after anti-bias law’s passage

David DeLong

Imagine a time when employers hung out a sign that effectively told job seekers, “People over 55 need not apply.”

That was the U.S. job market in the 1960s, when more than half of private-sector job openings explicitly barred older applicants, and one quarter even refused to look at applicants over age 45, according to a 1964 U.S. Department of Labor report. At the same time, employers were free to forcibly retire older employers based on age.

Those practices became illegal 50 years ago, when the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 was signed into law. The law was part of a broad wave of civil rights legislation that included the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Great progress has been made since that time, thanks to the ADEA and changing attitudes about age. That is reflected in the national employment statistics: in July, 3.2 percent of workers over age 55 were jobless, compared with the overall national unemployment rate of 4.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

But 50 years after passage of the ADEA, the picture on age discrimination is mixed.

The 55-plus figure paints an overly rosy picture of joblessness among older workers, since it does not reflect discouraged workers who lost jobs during the Great Recession and subsequently gave up looking for work. The real unemployment figure is more than twice as high, according to research by the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at the New School.

And a 2009 Supreme Court ruling imposed a higher legal hurdle for winning discrimination cases, finding that plaintiffs must prove that age was the most important reason for dismissal or demotion. And the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – the federal agency that administers and enforces the ADEA – needs to toughen up its enforcement of the law to better protect workers, legal experts argue.

Today’s tighter labor market has helped improve the outlook for older workers. But that varies by industry, said David DeLong, an expert on the shortage of critical skills in the workforce and author of “Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce” (Oxford University Press, 2004).

“If you’re a machinist or a nurse you can work as long as you are able and want to keep going because of the high demand,” he said. “But if you’re in a field like marketing, sales or public relations, or a field with fast-changing technology, you are much more likely to experience discrimination.”

Learn more at Reuters Money.

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