Older women get the brush-off from potential employers

(Reuters Health) - Aging doesn’t bother Laura Milvy. The 55-year-old San Franciscan doesn’t mind that her hair is gray or her skin is wrinkled. But she does suspect that her age, combined with her gender, have made finding a job tough.

A new study corroborates Milvy’s suspicion that she might have been a victim of age discrimination.

Older workers, particularly women, face an increasingly difficult time getting jobs, according to a new report in Research from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

In the largest study of its kind, three economists created about 40,000 fictitious applications and submitted them online for some 13,000 lower-skilled jobs as sales people, administrative assistants, security guards and janitors.

The experiment uncovered “compelling evidence” that women experience age discrimination in hiring, and the inequity intensifies with age. The older the woman, the less likely she was to hear back from potential employers, the study found.

For administrative assistant jobs, older women must apply to almost twice as many jobs to get the same number of interviews, the study found. Women between 64 and 66 years old were 47 percent less likely to hear back from prospective employers than women between 29 and 31.

In sales, the picture was only a bit sunnier: women ages 64 to 66 were 36 percent less likely to hear back than women ages 29 to 31.

Milvy spent a year unemployed and searching for work before landing her current job as assistant to the CEO at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. She has no way to know if her callback rate was lower than younger applicants. But she does believe she was less likely to be chosen for jobs after in-person interviews.

“What worries me is if we’re all living so much longer, how are we going to survive?” Are we going to be on the streets?” asked Milvy, who was not involved with the research.

Her questions echo those of the study’s authors.

By 2050, the U.S. Census Bureau expects the number of Americans age 65 and older to almost double from 2012, taxing the Social Security retirement system and putting pressure on older workers to continue working.

“The government, broadly speaking, is encouraging older workers to work longer, partly to reduce strain on Social Security,” said one of the study authors, Patrick Button.

“Efforts to try to get older workers into the labor force are going to be frustrated by discrimination,” he said in a phone interview. Button is a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans.

If policymakers want to keep older adults in the workforce longer, they must begin to address labor-force discrimination, sociologist Pamela Herd said in a phone interview. A professor of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, she was not involved in the new study.

“We’re living longer; people need to work longer. That’s all well and good, but if people are going to encounter discrimination we have to at a minimum understand that they are likely to be discriminated against,” she said.

“The first thing we need to get people to do is acknowledge it’s a problem,” she said.

She believes men also are vulnerable to age discrimination. The data on men in the new study hinted at possible age discrimination, but it was murkier.

Button hopes the study will spark a dialogue about ways to keep older people, especially women, in the workforce.

“We have to rethink policy and think about how we can support older women,” he said.

Changes to state and federal anti-discrimination laws might counter prejudice, as might tax incentives for firms that hire older workers, he said.

“I think there need to be policy changes,” Milvy said, “but more than that, there needs to be more awareness that when you reach 50, you don’t need to be put out to pasture.”

SOURCE: Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco Economic Letter, February 27, 2017.