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I'm a 56-year-old IT worker who got laid off last year and have been unemployed ever since. I have a hunch I'm not finding work due to ageism. How do I prove it?

Business Insider logo Business Insider 11/24/2022 rknight@insider.com (Rebecca Knight)
Research indicates that after the Great Recession, it took older workers who were displaced about twice as long to find a new job as younger workers. skynesher/Getty Images © Provided by Business Insider Research indicates that after the Great Recession, it took older workers who were displaced about twice as long to find a new job as younger workers. skynesher/Getty Images
  • Workers ages 50 and over have a harder time finding work than younger workers, research shows.
  • Meanwhile, surveys suggest that people in this group believe they face age bias in the workplace.
  • Here, an expert shares how workers can prove they were discriminated against in hiring decisions.

I'm a 56-year-old IT specialist with a solid track record and résumé, and I've been unemployed for over a year. I estimate I've applied to more than 300 jobs. I'm not sure why I'm not getting them, but I suspect ageism has something to do with it.

Last October, I was laid off from a major computer company, where I'd worked for five years, as part of a corporate realignment. Before that, I'd worked at another big tech company for 20 years.

I apply for every job for which I'm remotely qualified. And I've had exactly 31 interviews, most with frontline recruiters. I've been a finalist for a job a few times, but it's always gone to someone else, often decades younger.

I've lowered my expectations, and I'm still not having any luck. One company offered me a help-desk position for half the salary I was making. A recruiting coach suggested removing all dates from my résumé and hinted that I start dying my hair.

I see my age and experience as assets, and it bothers me that companies don't. I want to call them out on their prejudice. What can I do?

Ours is a youth-obsessed culture, and the workplace is no exception. A 2022 survey from AARP of nearly 3,000 of its members found that roughly two-thirds of workers over the age of 50 said they believed older employees face age discrimination at work. AARP, the advocacy group, conducted the survey online and by phone.

And the current moment's shaky economy is most likely compounding the problem when it comes to hiring. Research indicates that after the Great Recession, it took older workers who were displaced about twice as long to find a new job as younger workers. What's more, older workers who were unemployed for six months or more had far worse outcomes in reemployment, including 59% who made less money than in their previous job.

To find out what you might do about it, I spoke with Ray Peeler, an associate legal counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that oversees enforcement of workplace-discrimination laws. He told me that when it comes to hiring discrimination, "The difficulty lies in not knowing who got selected, what differentiated that person from you, and whether or not you were more qualified for the role."

To make a claim in court under the Age Discrimination and Employment Act, which covers workers ages 40 and older, Peeler said, you first have to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. These charges generally have to be filed within 180 or 300 days of an incident, depending on state and local laws. Last year, the EEOC resolved roughly 13,000 age-discrimination charges filed against employers. Of those cases, only 18% were found in favor of the employee.

To prove age discrimination, you have to show that your age was the difference between being hired and not, as opposed to some other legitimate rationale.

This is not easy to prove — but it's not impossible, either. Maybe the frontline recruiter showed initial enthusiasm in your application but suddenly lost interest upon finding out how old you were. Or perhaps age was a factor in the company's screening software if it required you to provide age-related information, such as your high-school graduation year, that's not immediately relevant to the job.

If, during an interview process, you have an inkling that age discrimination is playing into the hiring manager's decision-making, Peeler advised keeping contemporaneous records of your conversations and interactions with people at the company, and information on who was selected for the job. In court, if you can show evidence that your age might have played a role in your not getting hired, Peeler said, "the employer would have to then explain why they made the decision they did."

I wish you luck in your job search. It sounds as if many companies would be lucky to have someone with your experience and tenacity.

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