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Older workers face age discrimination
AP/Paul Sakuma
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What the US needs is more older workers, but a Fed study says employers refuse to hire them

By Oliver Staley

As the US population ages, policymakers are eager to keep seniors in the work force longer. Delaying retirement means more income generating taxpayers, and fewer workers drawing social security.

But older Americans can only work if someone is willing to hire them, and many—particularly women—face age discrimination, according to a new study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

A team of researchers created resumes for fictional applicants who were identical in all but their ages, and sent them to more than 13,000 employers with advertised openings. The applicants were in three age groups: 29-31, 49-51 and 64-66. The vacancies were for medium and lower skilled positions, such as administrative assistants for women and security guards and janitors for men.

Across five jobs, the callback rates were higher for the youngest applicants than for the oldest. The biggest gap was for women applying to be administrative assistants. The older applicants had a 47% lower callback rate than the youngest group. Older women looking for sales jobs were called back 36% less often then the younger applicants.

For men, who applied to janitorial and security jobs, the differences were not as significant, which the researchers suggest may be related to the nature of the jobs the fictional women applied to and the importance of appearance for women. “The effects of aging on physical appearance are evaluated more harshly for women than for men,” they write.

Age discrimination can have serious consequences. Donald Trump has pledged to create 25 million jobs in the next decade, which will require a dramatic increase in older Americans working to fill them. While many aging employees will simply remain in the jobs they’ve held for most of their careers, some older workers will transition into part-time and less demanding jobs at the end of their working lives. Those laid off during the recession will have bigger problems getting jobs than younger workers.

The US is considering policy changes to encourage workers to stay employed longer, such as limiting benefits for early retirees and increasing the retirement age, all to reduce the ratio of workers who have to support non-workers. But those policy levers will only work if there are jobs available, and employers who hire older workers to fill them. Otherwise, the policy changes will end up punishing the most vulnerable.