Claudette Lindsey was a teacher near Chicago for many years and then worked as a family support specialist with Head Start schools in Park Forest, Illinois, until she was laid off two years ago. Despite having a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, she couldn’t find a new job. After doing some volunteering, she discovered National Able Network, a nonprofit workforce development organization. She liked their programs for seniors.
Lindsey, who is in her early 60s, now goes to a weekly workshop for “seasoned workers,” as she puts it. “It’s been a great asset,” she said, recounting how the meetings have helped her create a LinkedIn profile, tweak her résumé and practice interviewing. But though she remains determined, work is still hard to land. “I’m a more mature worker,” she said. “You know that an employer might go with someone younger.”
Evidence keeps piling up that the deck is stacked against older workers who find themselves unemployed. And new research shows that pervasive age discrimination in hiring is most acute for those like Claudette Lindsey: older, unemployed women. Older men seem to suffer far less age discrimination than older women, and older women face more discrimination than younger women.
Those are the conclusions of two robust economic studies recently published, but not yet peer-reviewed, by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). The authors of these papers conducted large-scale field experiments known as résumé correspondence studies to test for discrimination in the job market.
This approach to studying age discrimination was first employed in a landmark study published in 2008. The design is simple enough: Researchers send out a bunch of fake résumés that are identical except for some characteristics such as the applicant’s name or year of graduation. They then see which fake applicants get a callback. If older applicants, for example, have a lower callback rate than younger ones despite having identical credentials, the researchers can infer that age discrimination was the reason.
These types of experiments are an improvement on previous studies of discrimination, which followed groups of people and interpreted any differences in outcomes as the result of discrimination, even if the groups’ underlying characteristics were radically different. “For decades, research on discrimination would just look at observational data — on men and women, blacks and whites,” David Neumark, an economist at the University of California at Irvine and an author of one of the new age-discrimination studies, said in an interview.
The study by Neumark and his co-authors is by far the largest known résumé correspondence study. They sent out 40,000 résumés, randomizing the applicants’ names and year of graduation to signal their gender and age. Résumés with women’s names were submitted for roughly two types of positions: administrative (secretaries and assistants, office and file clerks, receptionists) and sales (retail workers and cashiers). Résumés with men’s names also went out for jobs in retail sales, as well as for janitorial and security guard positions.
Across all occupations, Neumark and his team found lower callback rates for women ages 64 to 66 (12 percent) than for women ages 29 to 31 (19 percent). Older men, however, didn’t seem to have lower callback rates than younger ones — with one exception. Janitorial jobs seemed to discriminate against older men; Neumark speculated that a perceived reduction in physical stamina could be one explanation.
One shortcoming of the study — though an understandable constraint — was the small number of occupations that it targeted. To submit the large number of fake résumés, researchers used job search websites that typically have more ads for low-skill positions. So it’s possible that the gender gap in age discrimination would close if a wider array of job types were studied.
But Neumark’s study is not alone in finding evidence discrimination against older women. The second NBER study, also published last month, comes from Henry Farber, a Princeton labor economist, and his co-authors. In Farber’s experiment, roughly 12,000 randomized résumés were sent out. But all the fake applicants were women with college degrees.
While this experiment can’t speak to gender differences, it can pinpoint age discrimination among women. And it found evidence that older women have worse job prospects: women ages 35 to 37 and 40 to 42 received callbacks 11 percent to 12 percent of the time, but women ages 55 to 58 only got a callback 9 percent of the time, a statistically significant difference.
So if women are subject to age discrimination, the next question is why. Blatant sexism could be one reason: “There is some evidence that people’s rating of attractiveness diminishes more quickly for older women than older men,” Neumark said. While in his study employers were offering callbacks solely on the basis of résumés, they could have used age as a proxy for attractiveness, especially if they were hiring for jobs that require intensive social skills, such as sales.
But another explanation of these disparities, Neumark speculates, might be anti-discrimination law — or, rather, laws. Sex is a protected class in employment according to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, while age is covered by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. Precisely because different laws cover different categories, those who fall into both may also have a harder time proving they’ve been discriminated against. “There’s some evidence the age discrimination law doesn’t do as much for older women as older men,” Neumark said.
None of this is stopping Claudette Lindsey, though. She remains active in her job search. She now hopes to land a position at a high school after gaining experience working with teens at her church. If an education job doesn’t pan out, she’s interested in becoming a physical therapy technician.
Optimism and enthusiasm — those are qualities that Lindsey has in abundance. During our conversation, I heard only one hint of a complaint. “I wish companies would look at having an intergenerational workplace,” she said. She doesn’t think many employers do; in her mind, they don’t value the diverse perspectives of workers of different generations — and are missing out because of it.
“The seasoned workers have a lot of opportunities,” she said. “We have a lot of enthusiasm. We have a lot of lives in us.”