Managing Age Discrimination When Seeking Employment

A new qualitative study examines the age-management techniques used to combat potential age discrimination by older job seekers.

The fact that the workforce is aging has become widely recognized. This workforce aging has been met by attempts to encourage longer work lives and a more phased approach to retirement. The difficulty this poses for older workers is that when faced with layoffs they face potentially longer times on unemployment and more hurdles into back into the job market than their younger coworkers.

Previous research has demonstrated that both older and younger workers face stereotypes when on the job market and within the workplace. For older workers, they face the perception of being less flexible, harder to train, and unskilled in new technologies. The current study examined how older job applicants managed the impressions hiring managers had of them.

The methods used in this study were qualitative. 30 unemployed individuals aged 45 to 65 years old were interviewed. The individuals in this study had become unemployed for a variety of reasons: corporate downsizing, layoffs, desires to leave their previous employer, etc. In addition, to the interviews researchers conducted participant observations at an older workers program located in Toronto.

Research participants felt that prospective employers utilized various methods of discriminating against them. Each of these methods were believed to reflect negative stereotypes related to their skills, training, adaptability or flexibility, and financial costs. They felt that their resumes were used against them, where employers used the year they received their degrees to use as proxy for age.

In response to these feelings of discrimination older job seekers used a variety of age-related identity management techniques in an attempt to counteract negative stereotypes employers may have had about them.  For instance, attempts to keep their training current were viewed not so much as necessary for gaining job skills, but for managing the impressions of hiring managers who may assume they are not trainable.

In all, the feelings of being stereotyped caused many job seekers to redefine their professional expectations and even their ambitions for the type of work they should be doing.

In the U.S. with rising unemployment, older adults will face an uphill battle looking for work. More needs to be done to ensure that they are prepared to navigate this troubled job market.

Source: Berger, E. 2009. Managing age discrimination: An examination of the techniques used when seeking employment. The Gerontologist 49(3): 317-332.

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