Chris Autry built, opened and ran corporate call centers for about 30 years. His longest stretch of unemployment was for six months in 1989. Until recently, that is.
Autry, 64, lost his job last year in a corporate downsizing and hasn’t been able to find another one in the nine months that he has been looking. He thinks ageism may be playing a role.
He’s applied for about 500 jobs and gotten a 12% response rate that has led to dozens of interviews and follow-ups. Several interviews have been with CEOs or decision makers in the company, but he still hasn’t landed a job.
“Everything is virtual nowadays. I’ve found that if the first interview or screening is done over the phone, I always get to the next level. If it’s by video, I don’t make it to the next level,” Autry said. “Perhaps it might be unconscious bias if they see me as an older applicant.”
He said he never felt that ageism was overt or anything he could prove. Rather, it was more subtle.
During one interview, he said, he dressed appropriately, in his view, wearing a jacket and tie. The vice president of human resources asked him if he always dressed so formally.
“I got the impression that maybe I come off as old school, stuffy, from a bygone era,” Autry said.
He never said anything about that comment and has never filed a complaint about age discrimination, he said, because it’s always been so subtle.
“Even in my mind, I can’t prove that this was age discrimination. Maybe there was a better candidate,” he said. “I try not to let things like this defeat me.”
AARP found that 64% of adults age 50 and over in the workforce think older workers face discrimination, and nine in 10 believe that age discrimination against older workers is common in the workplace. More than one in 10 said they have been passed up for a promotion or chance to get ahead because of their age.
Another job seeker, Randy G., who declined to provide his last name, said he was laid off at age 57 as a graphic designer and has been unable to find full-time work since. He’s now 62 and still is looking for a permanent job, although he has had a variety of temporary and short-term assignments.
“I had no expectation that it would take me more than a few weeks to find a job,” he said. “But it has dragged on and dragged on. I did not see that coming.”
After about a year of job hunting, he said it dawned on him that ageism could be at play.
“It was never a specific thing that happened. It was never that a person said ‘bad thing X.’ I felt it was just in the water,” he said.
AARP found that age discrimination against people age 50 and over cost the economy $850 billion in 2018, as a result of lost jobs or missed promotions and opportunities.
To make it easier to prove age discrimination, a bipartisan group in Congress in December reintroduced a proposal called the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act. The measure was first introduced in 2009, and multiple versions have failed to pass.
The new House proposal seeks to address a 2009 Supreme Court decision in the case of Gross v. FBL Financial Services Inc. that weakened protections against age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. That ruling set a higher bar for age discrimination than for other types of discrimination, such as those based on sex, race or physical ability.
That Supreme Court decision required plaintiffs to prove that age was the primary reason for an adverse employment action, a much higher standard than the previous rule, which required that plaintiffs demonstrate that age was a motivating factor.
“More than a decade ago, the Supreme Court undermined protections for older workers by setting an unreasonable burden of proof for age-discrimination claims,” Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia, said in a press release.
The bill “would finally restore the legal rights of older workers by ensuring that the burdens of proof in age discrimination claims are treated in the same manner as other discrimination claims,” Scott said.
Despite potential age discrimination, the number of older workers is growing, and there are currently five generations in the workforce.
Almost one in five Americans age 65 and over worked for pay in 2023, nearly double the share of older adults who were working 35 years ago, according to the Pew Research Center.
And this year, the U.S. is hitting “Peak 65,” a phenomenon in which about 12,000 people per day will turn 65.
Looking forward, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projections suggest that the role of older workers will continue to grow over the next decade. People 65 and over are projected to make up 8.6% of the labor force in 2032, up from 6.6% in 2022.
“Older workers want what all workers want — flexibility and balance, fulfillment and satisfaction. At the end of the day, everyone wants the same thing,” said Carly Roszkowski, AARP’s vice president of financial-resilience programming.
Roszkowski said AARP has resources to help people in the workforce talk to a manager or human resources department about any potential age discrimination. For people looking for jobs, AARP offers tips for age-proofing résumés, such as removing graduation dates and limiting experience to the most relevant and the most recent 10 to 15 years.
The advocacy group is also working to help companies understand that multigenerational workforces are better for productivity, innovation and the bottom line, Roszkowski said. AARP also urges companies to include age in their efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion.
And if job seekers do encounter age discrimination, Roszkowski said, documentation is key.
“It’s the hardest discrimination to prove,” she said. “It is the largest barrier to re-enter or remain in the workplace.”