Recession = Increased Workplace Age-ism Against Women
Researchers advise ways to sidestep this ugly bias
It’s not your imagination: If you have a few wrinkles, submitting resumes can feel like flying paper airplanes into an abyss: endless, depressing, unfruitful. The statistics are terrible. Older women receive 40% fewer job interviews, a number that worsens as women age. Recent research by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that down markets intensify the awfulness, because age discrimination spikes along with the unemployment rate.
“For each one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate, the callback rate for an older woman goes down by 14% relative to a younger person,” says Gordon Dahl, a professor of economics at the University of California at San Diego, half of a research duo that traced age-manipulated resumes sent across eight cities over a number of years.
They also found that older workers get illegally fired more often during a recession, which is indicated by workplace lawsuits, which increase by 4.8% for each 1% rise in unemployment. (They only counted lawsuits independently found to have “merit.”) All this happens despite the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which supposedly protects workers over age 40 from job discrimination.
In short: Landing and holding a job as a woman of a certain age can be treacherous.
What to do? A cottage industry of “experts” opine on how to avoid ageism. Ignore them. Really. The people who actually study age discrimination sing a different, perhaps not entirely. hopeful tune: “Don’t get old. Don’t get fired,” jokes economist David Neumark of the University of California at Irvine, one of the premier age discrimination researchers in the country. Here’s the top research-backed advice:
Apply to public sector jobs. Private firms discriminate significantly more. “In general, public agencies typically have a set of rules and regulations that they have to follow for how they screen employees,” says Dahl’s research partner, Matt Knepper, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Georgia.
Consider moving. The same study found that older workers fare particularly well in cities with large public sectors. Hear that sound? It’s Albany, New York, calling your name.
If you can, wait for low unemployment numbers. Your search will be much more fruitful. To wit: When the U.S. unemployment rate goes from a healthy 4% to above 10%, an older person’s chances of getting hired plummet by half. So for every 20 resumes you send out, you might get one interview instead of two. “That, by the way, is completely illegal,” Dahl says.
Put dates in your resume. “The lowest number of interview callbacks are for people who don’t put dates in their resumes,” says Joanna Lahey, an economist at Texas A&M University who studies the topic.
Counteract stereotypes. The theme of your resume and interview should be active. Older people are pigeonholed as inactive, unable to learn, technologically inept, and in love with TikTok. Kidding. This is the moment to highlight your yen for marathon running and your karate habit, directly addressing the specific characteristics sought in the job ad. “Certainly trying to dispel those stereotypes credibly would help,” says Neumark.
Don’t worry about computer skills. “Ten years ago, having computer training on your resume helped,” says Lahey. No longer. Today’s older people are often more familiar with computers and programs like Excel than young employees, whose digital lives can be app-based.
Skip your homeowners association leadership. Just do it. Lahey is working on research showing that older applicants’ mentions of homeowners association membership have negative impacts on their job searches.
All this discrimination during recessions likely happens, by the way, because when there are many applicants for one job, employers can be choosy — and let their biases blossom. Conversely, when only one qualified person applies for a job, that person will likely get hired, regardless of age (or gender or race). The researchers suspected this, but were shocked by the enormity of the numbers.
“The surprise came by way of the magnitude,” says Knepper. “Everyone gets older. No matter how you fight it, eventually you will be an individual who is susceptible to age discrimination.”